Mohammed, Arab Conquests, Islamic Conquests, and Civil War in the Early Middle Ages

Illustration showing Mohammed preaching his final sermon to his earliest converts, on Mount Arafat near Mecca; taken from a medieval-era manuscript of the astronomical treatise The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries by the Persian scholar al-Biruni; currently housed in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Manuscrits Arabe 1489 fol. 5v). This scene was popular among medieval Islamic artists, and many nearly identical copies were made in the Middle Ages.

Lecture by Dr. Paul H. Freedman / 10.24.2011
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
Chair, History of Science and Medicine Program
Yale University

Mohammed and the Arab Conquests

Islam and Its Arabian Context

The expansion of Islam in the Middle Ages / Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to talk about Islam. And here we enter into a segment that, in a sense, is the most relevant, if relevance is a criterion, sort of is, to today’s world. Because these controversies that play out today–Shiism versus Sunni, for example, the nature of Islam, its appeal as a religion on a world scale–are obviously established in the period that we’re talking about.

They were established slowly. One of the things that you’ll have noticed from the assignment is that the author, Berkey, emphasizes very much that Islam is slow in formation, that it’s not fully grown as this militant movement with a set of rules in 632, the year that Mohammed dies. And because of that, then, it’s not to be understood as some militant, conversion-oriented, jihado-centric religion from the start.

I said at one point when we were summarizing the end of the Roman Empire that there were three heirs to the Roman Empire. One was the Church–ironic because, of course, the Church had grown up persecuted by the Empire. The other was the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire. Remember that it called itself simply “the Roman Empire.” So that’s the most clear claim being staked to succession to the Roman Empire.

And that the third was Islam. And a couple of you said, well Islam, that’s the most surprising of all, actually. And I didn’t really elaborate at that time. And that’s not the center of what we’re going to be talking about. Because time moves on.

We’re in the seventh century, the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west is established two and a half, two centuries earlier. But Islam, although developed in Arabia, outside of the Roman empire, and although very strong in places like Persia or the western part of India, would in many respects take up the inheritance of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

The conquests on the Mediterranean, in the east, and in the south; its architectural and artistic style; its administrative structure; and not least, the translation and elaborations of Greek science, medicine, and other academic forms, including, for example, the translation of Aristotle and the influence of Aristotle would be signs of, evidence of the significance of Islam within–it’s pointless to debate whether it’s the Western tradition or what the Western tradition means–but within the classical legacy, within what it means to say that Rome as a polity ceased to exist in the west and yet the classical world has continued to influence society and ideas to this day.

So in talking about the history of Islam, one is inevitably going to be emphasizing its revolutionary nature.

Arabia is off the map. Islam as a movement, and certainly the Arab conquests, are unpredictable events. They may be understandable later in terms of developments in the Near East, both religious and cultural, but up until the seventh century Arabia was on the periphery of the two great controlling empires to its north, namely Persia and Rome. And we are taking Byzantium as the heir of Rome in this sense.

The problem with Arabia is that it is really dry. And before the discovery of oil, or more precisely, before the discovery that oil was useful, important, and valuable, it was a strikingly impoverished land in terms of natural resources. “A terrible land,” as Isaiah the prophet says. Isaiah 21:1: “the burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through it, so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.”

Now, Isaiah actually grew up in what most of us would consider to be pretty dry circumstances. The eastern Mediterranean, modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria are hot and dry compared to bounteous climes.

So the Eastern Mediterranean, however, is a land of fertile oases, river valleys like the famed Tigris/Euphrates/Fertile Crescent area, coastal cities with commerce, whereas Arabia is essentially a vast expanse of barely habitable terrain. It is isolated by the sea on three sides. It has very few natural harbors. There are no lakes, no forests, no grasslands, even, and no rivers that run year-round.

Arabia Felix on a map by Ptolemy / International History Blog, Creative Commons

The only intrinsically favorable part of it is the southwest corner, modern Yemen. This was in the ancient world, or at least to the Roman geographers, “Arabia Felix,” Happy Arabia. Nice Arabia. And indeed, there were two kingdoms that emerged here around 1000 BC. Harbors, oases, and these two kingdoms controlled the spice and incense trade from India and from the Horn of Africa.

These are two extremely valuable kinds of products for religious, gastronomic, and medicinal purposes. And most of the spices come from India. And most of the incense comes from modern Somalia, Ethiopia, places along the Red Sea.

By the time of Mohammed, however, southern Arabia’s best days had passed. And Mohammed is, of course, from central, and in the sense of its orientation, really, northern Arabia.

The worst desert in Arabia is the south. So just when you get out of Yemen going northeast you come to an area that still bears the not really encouraging name, the Empty Quarter. This is really serious, no-oases desert. Further north, however, in places like Mecca or Medina, there is enough water for settlement, though not enough for agriculture.

A key event in the history of Arabia is the domestication of the camel, which can be situated around 1000 BC. Arabia, outside of the Yemenite kingdoms, was mostly nomadic, though there were trading cities of which the most famous are Mecca and Medina. These cities were rather cosmopolitan. They had Arabs and other peoples. They had Christians, some of whom were Arabs, some of whom were not, and Jews, many of whom were also Arabs.

They controlled overland trade, again, from further east, bearing exotic products like spices from India, organizing caravans. At times they would form kingdoms, at times there would be Arab kingdoms in the north, but generally these are feuding societies organized along tribal lines.

Looked at from the Roman or Persian empire, Arabia was a little bit like the forests of Germany: a hostile terrain–from the Roman point of view, Persian point of view–inhabited by useful but presumably barbarian and presumably not very interesting people.

This is the point of view of the Bible as well. They are primitive people bearing interesting products, inhabiting a land that’s not worth having. Not worth invading, not worth owning, not worth dealing with.

The first mention of Arabs seems to be 854 BC when, according to a Syrian inscription, a certain Gindibu, the Arab, contributed 1,000 camels to forces revolting against the Assyrians. The Arabs, henceforth, after 854 mentioned often in Babylonian and Persian texts. They’re always frontiersmen or people inhabiting a land beyond a frontier.

Bedouin Tribes

Bedouins / Getty Images, Creative Commons

Not all Arabs are nomads, but the Bedouin (Bedouin in this sense meaning Arab nomad) is sort of the Ur Arab, the original Arab, the defining archetype and the original colloquial meaning of the word Arab.

In a way the Bedouins are a little like the Germanic tribes, an analogy I’ll mention but I don’t want to push too hard. They form extended kinship units, that is to say they know who their second cousins are and care about them. And these extended kinship units form a kind of tribal structure.

This notion of tribe remains important to this day. You’ll have seen, in accounts of post-Qaddafi Libya, for example, the cliché, and probably accurate, is there is no tradition of government. Qaddafi didn’t govern, he just tyrannized. And there are no civil institutions. It is divided by tribal loyalties.

What does tribe mean in that? I actually don’t know in terms of Libya. It is a way of saying the people do not have loyalty to the state, but to some extended kinship group, or what’s sometimes called “fictive kinship group.” I’m not really related to you, but we have either the same name or we’re from the same place or we consider each other kin and therefore have a certain protective sense about each other. This is very useful if you don’t have a government.

We’ve already spoken about this in terms of our question of what held Merovingian society together. Your second cousin becomes important to you if there’s no police force, if there’s no way of making sure that someone is not going to kill you just for fun or because they got angry at you.

Under the circumstances we live in, we don’t care about our second cousins. We don’t know who they are. We don’t expect anything from them. In a society in which family is not just a sentimental attachment, but it actually is what is protecting your life, kinship is very important. Bedouins as well as Germans, then.

The problem with kinship is that while it’s a very solid attachment, it’s also an irritant. And here we’re not talking about arguments over whose Christmas is better or who gets the Venetian glass vase after Mom and Dad’s death, we’re talking about terrible arguments, feuds that are within a kinship group.

So you have feuds within the kin groups or tribes, and feuds between tribes, accentuated in this case often by water. Water, a scarce resource, obviously, and one that people fight about a lot in terms of territorial feuds. So the Bedouins tend to have more feuds than the Germans. There’s no Bedouin equivalent of wergild.

Remember, the wergild is the price that you have to pay to make someone have peace with you, even if you’ve killed their relatives. It’s the worth of a person. It’s compensation. And then other people can be assessed on the basis of some tariff. So women may be 2/3 of a man, a pregnant woman may be one and a half times a man, and so forth.

We saw this in the Burgundian Code. Key to the Burgundian Code is this notion of compensation, that money related to the nature of the loss. One finger, two fingers, right hand, left hand, is compensation. Bedouin don’t have that idea of compensation, of tariffs, of wergild.

In both the Bedouin and the German societies, the ruler has a limited amount of power. These are, I wouldn’t want to say democratic societies in terms of some theory of representation, but they’re not societies in which one person’s will is obeyed unquestionably.

They are consultative. They are more like gangs in that sense. There’s a leader, but his control is conditional on the loyalty of his most powerful subordinates. And his most powerful subordinates are quite capable of overthrowing him.

The Bedouin sheik is a little different from the Germanic king. And by Germanic king I mean not the kings that we’ve seen in the settled post-Roman, Merovingian empire, but the kings as described by Tacitus with possible greater or lesser accuracy. In the Germanic tradition, the king is a war leader. In the Bedouin tradition, the sheik is an arbiter, a settler of disputes.

Both societies exalted custom, and both had an exacting standard of masculinity. The Germans practiced agriculture and herded animals. The Bedouins don’t have agriculture, and they supplement their herding of animals by raids on wealthier society.

These raids, called “razzia,” are important because the Islamic conquests that we’re going to be talking about on Wednesday may be said to begin as raids. They begin as raids, and then they discover that there’s almost nobody there. That the Byzantine army and the Persian army are crippled by fighting against each other. So what begins by raids becomes conquests.


Islamic poster with portrait of the Prophet Muhammed / Tehran, Iran

So we come to Mohammed. At first glance it would seem that Mohammed is a religious leader whose career takes place in what a French scholar of religion called “the full light of history.” 620s AD may not seem like the full light of history, but Mohammed as a historical figure at least seems to emerge more clearly than Abraham or Moses or Jesus.

But, as you have read, Mohammed’s biography is hopelessly entwined with legend. What we know about Mohammed is what later Islamic and Arab commentators wanted to have happened to Mohammed.

There are several sources for the life of Mohammed, and for thus the early years of Islam. There are formal biographies, called sira, S-I-R-A. The problem with these is they were written long after Mohammed’s death–a hundred years, at least.

There are collections of oral tradition, called hadith, H-A-D-I-T-H, to which, similarly, there are sayings, proverbs. These are also questionable, because although they were put together within fifty years of Mohammed’s death, they’re very heavily influenced by the first civil war of the 650s, which we will be talking about the day after tomorrow.

And then there’s the Koran, which is supposed to represent the words of Mohammed as composed by divine inspiration. The Koran itself is a text that scholars outside of the Islamic tradition have questioned in terms of when it was put together, how much by Mohammed, how soon after Mohammed.

The problem with all these sources is not that they are unreliable in the sense of fabrication, but that they tend to shape events in light of what the writers already know happens and in light of what they think should happen.

So that, as an example, we’ll be talking about this in a moment, but you’re all aware that in 622 Mohammed moves suddenly from Mecca to Medina. He maybe can be said to flee Mecca. This is called the Hegira, or Hijra, depending on just how faithful you think you’re being to the Arab original.

The Hegira is a key event in Islamic history. It is the point from which Islamic dating is done. That is to say the Islamic calendar starts with the Hegira. So this year is the year of the Hegira such and such. I can’t do 2011 minus 622 immediately, but that’s the Islamic year.

According to the traditional historical record, the Meccans tried to assassinate Mohammed, and he escaped, narrowly, this attempt. There’s no real evidence of this degree of hostility on the part of people in Mecca. There’s no evidence of an assassination attempt, or at least independent evidence.

And the assassination attempt seems to be something that is important for the story, for the way that the story is presented later, to dramatize something that may not have been at the time as dramatic as it seemed.

It may have been that the Meccans simply didn’t listen to Mohammed and then he accepted an invitation to Medina. It may be that they were trying to sort of shut his movement down. But that they resorted to assassination does not seem to be very likely.

OK, so having given you all of these fatiguing caveats about what we do and do not know, let’s say Mohammed was born between 570 and 580. He was born into a reasonably prominent but not really very affluent family of Mecca.

He may have been a merchant. It is usually assumed he was, and this is partly because the Koran has a lot of mercantile similes. In order to elucidate various points, comparison is made with trade, but there’s no real evidence. We don’t really know what he did for a living.

We know that he married well. His first wife, Khadija, was from a wealthy family, a higher class family than Mohammed’s own.

And we also know that Mohammed got his start as a religious thinker, as a prophet, at the age of forty, an encouragement to those of us who are slow to get our careers off the ground. The discouraging part is that his career only lasts a relatively brief time. He dies ten years after the Hegira, but he does accomplish an awful lot.

What was his religious experience? What was the revelation vouchsafed to him that he preached to the citizens of Mecca beginning around 615 to 620? It is certainly a message of monotheism against what was considered to be a prevailing paganism, or polytheism on the part of the merchants and tribesmen of Arabia.

But as we’ve said, Arabia had lots of Jews and Christians as well. And it’s a little tricky to tell how much Mohammed would have known about Judaism and Christianity. But it looks as if he did. And indeed, it looks as if his preaching begins as a kind of biblical monotheism for the Arabs.

It is a message to the Arabs congruent with the message of Judaism and Christianity, the message of Judaism and Christianity being understood as a statement of the unity of God and a progressive interpretation of God’s message by a series of prophets, a series of prophets beginning with Abraham, including Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, according to Islam, and Mohammed. Mohammed is then in the line of prophets.

The degree to which this means that Islam takes on its own identity is hard to say. And the tendency of scholars outside of the Islamic tradition, that is people like Berkey, is to say it takes quite a while. Takes quite a while for there to be the confidence that Islam is a religion that is different from Judaism and Christianity, while it is clear from the start that the people who are embracing it are different, even though there are Arab and Jewish Christians, and we’ll see what that means in a moment.

Mohammed’s first converts are his family circle and a group of key friends. And they’re all important historically. His wife, his cousin Ali, who would marry his daughter Fatima, a merchant named Abu Bakr, a powerful member of one of the leading clans or family groups of Mecca, Uthman, sometimes spelled–I think in the Berkey book spelled with a U, so we’ll use the U.

Uthman, right, Ali, I’ve mentioned, Abu Bakr. Uthman is a member of the Umayyad family. And Omar. These are sort of considered to be the inner circle of very, very early converts.

As I said, according to tradition the ruling circles of Mecca became fearful as what had been a fringe movement started to gain more converts. The people who ruled Mecca feared that their control was slipping from their grasp, and they feared that this new movement was popular with a lower class.

The leading clan of Mecca were the Quraish. These are the people who are most powerful in Mecca and begin as the enemies of Mohammed and are responsible for driving him out, if indeed he was driven out.

Mohammed in Medina and the Differentiation of Islam

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi – Medina, Saudi Arabia / Wikimedia Commons

In 622 the city of Medina, another merchant center, invited Mohammed to come as a kind of arbiter or ruler who was above factions and who could then settle their internecine disputes.

This is not an uncommon pattern. You’ll see it in late medieval and Renaissance Italy, in fact. The podestà in Italian cities is an outsider who is empowered with very extensive police powers to quell feuds. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, there’s a podestà, but he’s not able to solve the feud. But that’s the kind of scene that we can imagine as the western equivalent of Medina.

Muhammad is invited as a wise man, as an arbiter, as a reconciler to the city of Medina, an offer that he accepts. And it is in Medina that we really start to see emerge what can be called an Islamic identity. I tend to think a little bit earlier than Berkey, because here Islam starts to differentiate itself from Judaism and Christianity. And indeed, the period at Medina culminates with the expulsion of Jewish groups who refuse to accept Mohammed.

What he does at Medina also is to preach that the religious loyalty is more important than loyalty to the tribal group. The religious loyalty therefore is not simply a accompaniment to your already existing identity; it is the most important aspect of your identity.

It’s at Medina that Mecca replaces Jerusalem as the point of orientation for prayer. It’s at Medina that Mohammed stopped celebrating Yom Kippur and institutes a month-long fast during the daylight hours, Ramadan. At Medina, Friday becomes the Sabbath, not Saturday or Sunday.

And the Jews are expelled from Medina. And by Jews I don’t mean some kind of foreign community of non-Arabs who happen to be living in Medina, but rather Jews, some of whom came from elsewhere, many of whom were Arabs.

And it’s also here that Mohammed perfects this notion as against the Christians and Jews who have scorned him that he is the Seal of the Prophets, the last of the prophets. From Abraham to Jesus, now to Mohammad. This is the last prophecy.

God’s message has not been packaged into one deal, one file too large for one email attachment. And it’s come in a bunch of them, and this is it. Here are all the cute cat pictures and all of the– the whole file, which you now can download in segments. But it’s over. This is it. The Jews and Christians are wrong to think that either it ended with Elijah or that the be all and end all of all prophecy was Jesus. No. No. This is the truth.

But keep in mind that Islam did, and at least is supposed to, respect Judaism and Christianity as not merely precursors, but as part of the same tradition. “People of the Book” is the term often used in Islam to describe Judaism and Christianity. They share the same, if not scripture exactly, but the same kind of historical religious orientation.

The criticism that Islam can make against Christianity is that it tends to be polytheistic. And as you know, Islam expands great care to make sure that the human form does not appear in art. And in some forms of Islamic art that not even animals appear. Depiction of the human figure is proscribed.

Great care is made in differentiating Mohammed from what Muslims see as the exaggerated stature of Jesus. Mohammed is a prophet. He is a messenger of Allah, not to be identified with Allah himself. There is no depiction of Mohammed. People do not have pictures of him in their houses. There are no statues to him.

Mohammed’s greatest challenge was to overcome these tribal loyalties in favor of the umma, U-M-M-A, the community of the faithful. He allowed property and marriage to be decided still by tribal tradition, but prohibited feuds and required that disputes be arbitrated in religious courts.

This is important. Because Mohammed, like the rabbis of the Diaspora in Judaism, is both a religious leader and a judge. He is a community leader and a spiritual leader. And indeed, these two things are not really distinguished.

I emphasize this because it’s really different from Christianity. In Christianity, there’s a church and there’s a legal, secular state. Sometimes, and of course the Middle Ages to some extent defined by this, the Church will have what look like secular powers. We’ve talked about this with regard to the bishops and Gregory of Tours. At times the papacy, later, would claim all sorts of political powers.

But conceptually in Christianity, because Christianity was an illegal religious brotherhood within the Roman Empire for over two centuries, church and state are different.

In Islam, one can’t really talk about church or clergy. There are religious leaders who have political authority, but their authority is what we would call that of a judge and that of a religious leader at the same time. The political order and the religious community are the same.

That’s why when we talk about the Arab conquest or the Islamic conquest, we’re talking about something in which the new territories are taken over by a state that’s not a theocracy in the sense of the church’s ruling the state, but something in which the church and state are not to be distinguished. We’ll talk about this more when we come to the conquests. Within two years of the Hegira, 622, so by 624 Mohammed was planning to take over Mecca, to re-enter in triumph the city that he had fled, if not under cover of darkness at least under murky circumstances. A victory in battle in 624 gave Mohammed the confidence to expel Jews and Christians from Medina and to take on this title of Seal of the Prophets.

And by 627 Medina gained the upper hand, and in 630 Mecca fell to Mohammed and his forces. And all of the tribes of Mecca and of the surrounding areas submitted to Mohammed. They recognized him as a political as well as religious leader. Again, the two things not easily to be distinguished.

And then Mohammed died. In 632 he died, and what is remarkable is that the momentum he established was able to survive his demise. Because most of the tribes probably thought that their loyalty was to him as a prophet and a person, and not to some sort of institution that would survive his death.

And indeed, his death would usher in a period of incredibly rapid expansion. Within a few years of Mohammed’s death, Damascus, the great city of the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine Damascus, would fall to the Arabs, the first of many such conquests that we will be marching through on Wednesday. But this question of religious loyalty would be exacerbated by splits within Islam, which we’ll also be describing.

The Tenets of Islam

“Five Pillars of Islam” / Wikimedia Commons

The tenets of Islam, just to close by way of our last remarks for the day. Islam means “surrender.” And to surrender oneself to the power of Allah is the beginning of wisdom, beginning of faith. Acknowledgement of Allah is acknowledgement a strict monotheism, acknowledgement of Mohammed as the messenger prophet of Allah, and as the last prophet.

The so-called “Five Pillars of Islam” are duties incumbent on the believer. And these are the confession of faith that I just mentioned, daily prayers, five times a day, the giving of alms, the observance of Ramadan, and the performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca if that’s possible.

What’s not there is interesting, too. What’s not intrinsic to Islam is a strong sense of sin. The Arabs do not like the Confessions of Saint Augustine, are not interested in this particular form of spiritual investigation. The believer can pray directly to Allah. There is really no Islamic clergy in the sense of presiding over sacraments or channels of grace.

The mosque is a gathering place; it is not a place that has some kind of powerful holy objects in it, in the sense that a church in this era would have relics or Eucharistic hosts and other very powerful, sacred things.

Islam is a religion of conduct and law, not of mortification and purgation. It emphasizes upright behavior: no drinking, no gambling, certain dietary restrictions. Not the renunciation of the world–it does not say, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” It says, “Give alms.”

It is a moderate religion, actually. It is a “do-able” religion. These obligations may be somewhat inconvenient at times, Ramadan for example, but there is nothing in here to the degree that the New Testament, for example, proscribes [correction: prescribes] behavior that most people are not going to follow.

Or that traditional Judaism, possible but certainly onerous. Lots of obligations. The other difference, more important, with Judaism is that Islam would be very quickly universal. In other words, it would encourage conversion, although not, as we will see, with great enthusiasm.

It is completely erroneous to think that these armies that burst forth from Arabia after the death of Mohammed were intent of getting everybody to follow Mohammed. They were intent on conquest.

Islamic Conquests and Civil War

Introduction: Apparent Paradoxes of Islamic Conquest

The Islamic Conquests, 643-711 / Wikimedia Commons

I know there’s a lot of new terminology, new narratives. The things that I want you to keep in mind are what we’re really going to focus on today and that is the Islamic conquests, which certainly take place partly because of religious motivation, but nevertheless are not accompanied by some fanatical desire to convert the world. The Muslim conquests have to be understood in terms of religious motivation but not in terms of a determination to wipe out Judaism and Christianity.

What appears to be a paradox makes this era a little hard to understand. Namely, the paradox being that you would have such a rapid expansion of the Arabs and the religion that they carried, which eventually would extend from Spain to India. And at the same time that the Islamic population would be a minority in most of those conquered regions for centuries. There is not a demand for the conversion of the population to Islam, and that although the conversion does take place, in many, in most parts of this imperial caliphate, it doesn’t take place immediately and it doesn’t take place under great pressure. I say apparent paradox because, in fact, the two things are different.

The motivation provided by the religion to conquer does not necessarily mean that you require that everybody that you conquer embrace the religion. Indeed, in part, this is because, as Berkey emphasizes, the distinctiveness of the religion was worked out over the course of its first century, beginning as we said last time in Medina but not fully articulated until the change of dynasty in 750 from the Umayyad to the Abbasids. But the other reason is that there’s no logical connection between conquest and conversion. It’s perfectly possible to be a motivated conqueror and not to require that other people embrace your religion and this is for reasons that we’ll see.

The other apparent paradox, and here I think there really is a paradox, is that the Islamic conquests are accompanied by internal division within Islam from 650 AD. By the time of the Abbasid succession, it is a century later, these two parties can be identified as Sunni and Shiite.

And you’ve read that and you’re aware that this continues to be a division that defines an awful lot of the Islamic world today. It is particularly a problem in those countries such as Iraq, for example, that have both Sunni and Shiite populations. It’s not a problem in Morocco where everybody is Sunni. And it is less of a problem in contemporary Iran where a very large majority is Shiite. But it is a problem that defines both Islam as a religion and the politics of many countries to this day. And so one of the things we have to talk about in a lecture entitled “Islamic Conquest and Civil War” is the origins of the split within Islam. The paradox is that the conquests keep on going even while it would seem that religious unity is falling apart.

Mohammed’s Successors and the Beginnings of Conquest

Abu Bakr Mosque in Medina / Wikimedia Commons

Now as you remember, I hope, after Mohammed’s death, there was no clear succession. He didn’t have a son, and it wasn’t clear what anyone would succeed to. If he was the seal of the prophets, then you couldn’t succeed to prophecy. Was he a religious ruler, was he a military ruler, was he a judicial arbitrator? His father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who we saw was one of the first of his followers, was elected caliph– caliph meaning “successor”, simply. Succeeding to what was not defined, but to some kind of combination of religious and secular rule. As we said last time, religious and secular rule are, in a fundamental way, not separated in Islam, although as we’re going to start to see and as you’ve read, there are some ways in which they do start to separate out, particularly in the later Abbasid period.

Abu Bakr was elected, that is the followers of Mohammed, the people who were thought to have some sort of original religious authority, elected him. His rival was Ali, the cousin of Mohammed and the son-in-law, at the same time of Mohammed. Ali had married Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. But this election was not recognized by many of the tribes that had regarded their loyalty to Mohammed as personal loyalty to Mohammed, not to some institution and not to some permanent coterie of caliphs or successors. So they refused to recognize Abu Bakr’s authority and there ensued what’s called the ridda, R-I-D-D-A, or apostasy, where the tribes rejected the authority of Abu Bakr, and Abu Bakr militarily compelled them back into submission or recognition of his authority.

Abu Bakr ruled for less than two years, but he had already started on a key aspect of the ridda, the apostasy, and, that is, turning the resistance to the apostasy into a war against external enemies. In other words, the military energy that had to be devoted to bringing these tribes back in, once they were brought in, was continued to turn their military energies outward. And outward means to the north, out of the Arabian desert and to the direct north and slightly northeast, meaning Persia, to the northwest meaning the Byzantine Empire.

And already under Abu Bakr , it was discovered that the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire were hollowed out and that what began as raids to keep these discontented tribes happy with a spot of plunder turned into a conquest. And as success breeds success– and I don’t think there’s any more dramatic lesson of that cliché– the ambitions of the conquerors changed very quickly; well the ambitions of the raiders changed very quickly, from booty to conquest, from plunder to an expansion of territory.

Remember that the Persians and the Byzantines had fought each other, that in 626 Persia besieged Constantinople unsuccessfully– 626, four years after the Hegira. So from the Islamic/Muslim/Arab point of view, the timing was great. These two great empires had exhausted each other militarily and to some extent spiritually as well. In 634, in other words two years after the death of Mohammed, the city of Damascus fell to the Arabs. Damascus, the capital of Byzantine Syria, indeed one of the oldest cities in the world, mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, an extremely important center of government, commerce, and religion fell. The Byzantine Empire was defeated near Jerusalem.

Abu Bakr died in 634 and again Ali was passed over in another election in favor of another companion of Mohammed, Umar, another one of those original followers that we mentioned in the last lecture. Umar would rule from 634 to 644. He was a startlingly effective ruler.

In the ten years of his caliphate, the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire entirely. An empire that had lasted for centuries, that had been one of the great world empires, collapsed and was taken over by Islam,by the Arabs. The Byzantine Empire didn’t completely collapse, but in this period it lost Syria, Palestine, and then its richest agricultural province, Egypt. Alexandria, capitol of Egypt at the time, surrendered in 642.

Factors Favoring Arab Conquest

Battle of Cresson: Saladin’s Ayyubid Force Defeats Crusaders in desert warfare / Wikimedia Commons

We can list the factors that favor the Arab conquest, though they’re mostly sort of favorable soil, as it were, not the plant itself. Weakness of Persia and Byzantium, I’ve already mentioned. A mastery of desert warfare. We’ll see this with the Vikings at the end of the course. There are peoples who have been able to take advantage of an adverse environment that they are able easily to swim through, travel through, and that a less mobile adversary cannot deal with. So the similarity between the sea and the rivers of Europe and the desert of the Near East is that you can pick and choose your battles. You appear off the coast. “Uh oh. There’s an army there. We’ll just go back and then we’ll raid somewhere else.”

The same is true of the desert. You appear out of the desert where the urban dwellers cannot easily field an army. And you discover that there’s nobody defending the city and you take it. Or you discover there is somebody defending the city. You go right back into the desert; they can’t pursue you there and you pick somewhere else. So the mastery of desert warfare is in part a question of mobility and the ability to move in the desert freely, easily.

Another aspect of the weakness of Persia and Byzantium is the discontent of their religious minorities. Persia was ruled by a Zoroastrian elite and had other religious groups that felt, if not persecuted, at least discriminated against. And as we’ve seen, the Byzantine Empire had a substantial Monophysite population that was persecuted by the orthodox. These people might not exactly fight for the invader but they certainly weren’t unhappy when the invader showed up.

Indeed, remember that I said that in 655, there was a naval battle. How could the Arabs have sailors if they hadn’t seen a year-round river until a few years before this battle? Their sailors were, most of them, from Monophysite populations of Egypt and Syria. They were able to recruit people who would fight for them who were not Muslim.

The third is the channeling of a war-like society towards external fighting. This is like a problem of conservation of energy. You have a certain amount of energy that is being expended in external fighting. If you can turn all those electrons or whatever in the same direction and make them go outward, they will be extremely powerful. Limits of my scientific knowledge, unfortunately, you see displayed. But you understand what I’m talking about. That is, the internecine warfare is now turned outside because the plunder is better, the motivation is better.

And then motivation is a fourth reason. Religious motivation is this thing that is called jihad. Everybody knows what this means. And we’re going to have to grapple with it because our understanding of it is perhaps partial and distorted. Jihad means struggle. It is a struggle against other religions or against other tendencies within Islam. There’s plenty of energy, as we will see, devoted to fights within Islam. Internecine religious fighting if not tribal feuding.

So we use the term jihad with some reservations. It is wrong to think of the Arab conquest as an expression of jihad in the sense that guys with knives in their teeth ride out and offer a terrorized population the choice of death or conversion. Once again, it is possible to have a religious motivation and yet not necessarily want to kill or convert the conquered people. The Quran itself has plenty of information about the jihad but it is not completely consistent. Certainly there is a sense that the unbelievers must be combated. A sense of martyrdom even–that those who died in the struggle to advance the religion will receive special favor.

But there is also a respect accorded to people of other religions, in particular, Jews and Christians. And if you think about it, it is psychologically possible to be convinced that God is following you. God must be following you. After all, you just conquered Jerusalem, you just conquered Alexandria, you just came out of the desert and have started to a roll like a tsunami– an image I don’t think is really in the Quran. Well, let’s say roll like the sands of the desert over ancient civilization. So God must be with you. But the fact that God is with you may indicate that you’re an elite and that the people that you conquered are simply going to stay that way. Or that if they want to become Muslim, that makes sense. Obviously Got favors Islam. If they don’t want to become Muslim, that’s their lookout.

So it does not mean that you have a hostile conquest policy. Jihad is, in this context, not incompatible with tolerance. “Tolerance” is a word I use with caution as well. Because it’s not as if they have a modern ideal of tolerance, of individuality, of “You have your religion, I have my religion.” It is more that they are not bothered by the presence of people of other religions. And we’ll see some of why that is. So, number five, a policy of allowing conquered people to maintain their religion, livelihood, and private lives.

So there are other rapid conquests in world history, and there are other rapid conquests by people who are technologically or culturally or certainly economically behind the people that they conquer. The Mongols conquer an incredible territory. The Vikings, which we will end the course with, are certainly less developed, economically, less civilized, than the Carolingian Empire that they plunder. What is unusual about Islam, and I reiterate something that I’ve said already, perhaps more than once, is that it has a permanent effect. Rather than disappearing back into their yurts, like the Mongols, or disappearing back into the tundra- well that’s an unfair description of Scandinavia- but disappearing back into the north like the Vikings, the Islamic powers not only stay as occupiers but become, themselves, a cultivated, wealthy, highly civilized empire. What is unusual about the Arabs, then, is their ability to consolidate and to hold onto their conquests.

OK, I think I said before there are three startling things about Islam: the career of Mohammed, the rapidity and extent of the conquests, and this business of the cultural adaptability, consolidation, of the Arab conquerors.

The conquest part of this is clearer than the internal divisions.

Arab Conquests

The Abbasid Caliphate, 750-1258 and 1261-1517 / Wikimedia Commons

So let’s proceed with the conquests rapidly. There’s no single regime, there’s no rule issued by the Caliphate for conquest policy. In general, if the population surrendered on terms the way Alexandria had in 642, that was fine. Then the people were allowed to keep their local customs. In other words, they were allowed to keep their houses, their jobs, their religion, their property. The Arabs were intent on plunder, however. Why didn’t they just pillage these people?

Some of it is just wisdom. They are thinking they’re going to have to govern these places and that they might as well harness the industry and enterprise of the population rather than kill them or disperse them. Some of it was, I think, that they had so much plunder available to them from other sources that they didn’t have to bother with some middle-class artisan’s wealth. They could plunder churches. They could seize Church lands. They could take the state treasury. Between them, the state and the Church held so much wealth, that the Arab conquerors didn’t really want to bother with mere private property. The leading nobles tended to flee. They allied their interests with the state. They were very large property owners; that land could be confiscated.

And the reward to the conquerors was to be settled on lands of their own, with tenants of their own, and these lands tended to have belonged to the state or to the Church. They received long leases for these lands from the Caliphate, and they paid a religious tax, a kind of tithe, as members of the umma, the religious community.

Non-Muslims were allowed to keep their property, their land and other property, but they had to pay two taxes that Muslims did not. They had to pay what is called in the English-speaking world a poll tax, which is basically just a head tax. Every person or every household pays a certain amount of money. It’s actually kind of like a flat tax, but it has nothing to do with income. It is simply that you as a person living in this polity pay this as a tax. And then a land tax. Land tax obviously more variable depending on how much land you own. If you own x amount of land, you pay a tax. If you own 8x amount of land, you pay eight times that tax, at least that is the theory.

And given that, as we said, as far back as Diocletian, you need to have very good records to keep track of taxes, then they kept on the old officials who had those records. So the language of administration in Syria remains Greek for quite a while; in Egypt, it remains Greek; in Persia, it remains Persian, because the guys that are running it are basically the same guys who are running it under the old empire. Why would the Arabs want to get rid of them? They would want to get rid of the high officials, the nobles, but the functionaries, the bureaucrats, stayed on. Most people who were Christians or Jews paid no more tax to the conquerors than they had to the Byzantine or Persian Empire. In other words, they were conquered, their lives did not radically change, their taxes did not go up. They didn’t really miss the Persian or Byzantine imperial regimes.

The question, however, is why are the Arabs so tolerant? And this surprises people who assume that Islam has always been spread with a kind of totalizing militancy. In fact, for a time, the conquerors didn’t encourage conversion because you can see the consequences of conversion for taxation. If eighty percent of the population is Jewish and Christian, then eighty percent of the population is in a high tax bracket. If you are running things, it’s to your interest that they not convert to that very low ten percent tax bracket or whatever the zakat, the religious tax is. “Go ahead and have fun. It’s Sunday, go to church, don’t bother me, pay your taxes,” would be a fairly common attitude on the part of the conquerors.

And of course there’s a respect for Christianity and Judaism that I’ve already mentioned. Some of it is confidence that eventually people are just going to see that Islam is more successful. Up until the Abbasid regime, 750, a vast majority of the conquered territory remained in the religion that it had had before the conquest. In other words, in Egypt in 750, a majority of the population were Christian. And indeed in Egypt, to this day, ten percent of the population is Christian. Certainly, Islam would gain. And certainly now, ironically, much more than in 800 AD or 1200 AD or 1500 AD or 1900 AD, it’s tough to be a Christian in Egypt. This is a problem of modernity, not of the period we are dealing with.

Internal Divisions

During a large part of Muhammed’s life, Umar Bin Abdul Aziz was one of the Prophet’s leading advisers. He ruled the Muslim community from 634 to 644. / Wikimedia Commons

So the process of conquest is very rapid. The process of Islamization is not. They are not to be confused. Amidst all these triumphs, the caliph experiences divisions that culminated in a civil war between 656 and 661.

And the origins of it seems to be the murder of Caliph Umar in 644. He was murdered by a Persian Christian. So it’s not a Muslim assassination. But it ushered in another disputed election. And Ali, poor guy, presented himself yet again as the successor of Mohammed.And again he was defeated, this time by Uthman. Uthman, along with Abu Bakr and Umar, we mentioned him as one of the original followers of Mohammed. Uthman was a member of a prominent clan, the Umayyads, a high status Mecca family. High status, but the Umayyads had opposed Mohammed. Uthman was an exception but his family were among those people of Mecca who had been the most steadfast in opposing this upstart guy.

So to some, especially the followers of Ali, Uthman appeared to be a representative of a not really staunch Islamic family. They were not fervent new followers. Why was Ali passed over so many times? It’s not clear. Here again, we are in a very controversial area in which a lot of later tradition elaborates reasons for things that may not have anything to do with what the reality was in 644. You start to have pro-Ali parties or traditions. This is what would become the Shiite party and pro-Umayyad or pro-Caliphate traditions, that of the Sunnis. Neither of which is completely to be relied on because obviously they are biased.

Under Uthman, the pace of conquest continues. This naval battle in 655 took place– the Battle of the Masts– in which the Byzantine navy was defeated by the Arab navy. This meant that islands in the Mediterranean start to fall to the Arabs. Cyprus was conquered in 649, Rhodes in 654. Meanwhile, in the former Persian Empire, the eastern part of Iraq, tending over towards Persia, was conquered in 651-653. Armenia, north and west of Persia, east of Anatolia, the area where the earthquake was recently, was conquered in 653-655.

But Uthman was particularly disliked by much of the population. Unlike Umar, unlike the early caliphs, he was regarded as lethargic and as a sensualist, let’s say. Lethargic and profligate, a lover of luxury, a monarch rather than a leader, a corrupt ruler. And he was murdered by a Muslim in 656. Here we have the first assassination of a caliph by another member of the faithful.

And Ali was proclaimed as caliph. The problem here is that Ali was proclaimed caliph by the people who had assassinated Uthman. Or at least he was perceived as taking the title from the bloodied hands of assassins. Whether he knew in advance of the plot against Uthman is doubtful. But he starts off in a somewhat false position as caliph. He is opposed bitterly by the Umayyad family. But more than that, his claim to the caliph is tarnished by the circumstances under which he came into it.

And an Umayyad rose up against him and starts the first civil war of Islam. This is Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria who revolts in Damascus and leads a party against Caliph Ali. In fact, this gives rise to a militant group of people who hate both claimants. Ali is assassinated, and Mu’awiya is wounded. Now Mu’awiya survives but the tendency within Islam to dispose of enemies by violent means has been sanctioned by the events of this period.

So 661, the civil war is over. Mu’awiya moves the capital from Medina to Damascus. He establishes the Umayyads as a dynasty, and they would rule as caliphs until 750. What does this move from Medina to Damascus mean? It certainly is a part of the de-Arabization of the definition of the caliphate. Damascus is not an Arab city, at least in its origin. It was part of the Byzantine Empire. It is more centrally located than Medina in terms of administering the Empire. It’s also more cosmopolitan. It has a lot of different kinds of people.

So the move is away from the Arab heartland to a place where the population is not necessarily Arab. It is part of the transformation of the caliph from what we would call religious leadership to that of a kind of kind of monarch, king. The caliph lives in a city. He lives in a palace. He has an immense entourage. The days of the tents in Arabia or of quasi-nomadic followers of Mohammed are definitively over with the defeat of Ali. Defeat, but it’s not a complete defeat.

Sh’ia means party or to its opponents faction. And for a long time, the Shiites are like the perpetual losers who cannot at the same time be eliminated. They are a minority within Islam. They are, at various times, seemingly overwhelmed by the wealth, armies, power of the caliphs. But they never go away and they never abandon their claims. They form, thus, a permanent dissenting group within Islam. What is the nature of that dissent? What don’t they like about Islam as it’s practiced by the majority?

They reject the caliph as a religious figure. Do they reject him because he’s not the descendant of Ali? Partly. Part of this is a succession question. They reject the caliph because he’s illegitimate. So it’s kind of like a dynastic question. The only real caliphs– and they don’t use the term caliph. They start to use the term “imam” as you’ve read. The only real religious leader is not the guy sitting in Damascus in his palace with the splish-splashing fountains and scented perfumes everywhere. But to what extent do they reject the caliphate as such apart from the dynastic question? How would you describe Shiite political theory? If the Sunnis are monarchical, if they are comfortable with a caliph who rules over an Empire of unbelievable extent, what might the Shiites prefer to see? OK, Spencer?

They are anti-monarchical. They regard the caliph as a sort of George III of the Muslim world. They don’t want to have a single ruler who is a political ruler. They’re comfortable with rulership in at least some sense. But the rulership should be either elected or inspired. They are radicals, in part because they’re dissenters. They’re on the out, in part because they are really angry and they countenance violent tactics of opposition. They are egalitarian and that’s sort of what I mean by republican. It’s not so much that they necessarily believe in a representative system as that they believe in a system in which one class of believers is not exalted over another. And one person is not ruling merely because he comes from a certain background.Now what happens when religious movements are frustrated? That is, when they are objects of repression? Because indeed the Shiites were not particularly tolerated by the caliph. Often, such religious groups become fixated on a future in which their claims will be vindicated. This certainly makes sense.

The Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire wrote the granddaddy of all prophetic texts, prophetic of the destruction of your enemies: the Book of Revelations. I suggest that you take a look at that anyway as it’s always interesting reading. And it is the book of the Bible that has the most relevance, for better or worse, to the current world we live in because it’s the one that talks constantly about the future and what’s going to happen. Is that future the Apple computer future where everybody’s wonderfully connected and we all can just float in some kind of great brain that we participate in? Or is the future some terrible ecological disaster in which we’ll be cannibals and stuff? Or is the future the visitation of those angels, those candlesticks, those flowing rivers of molten metal as in the book of Revelations? Trumpets all over the place. Will 1/3 one-third of the population be wiped out one day and then another  third the next day? The narrator of the Book of Revelations cannot wait for this to happen.

It is in the nature of apocalyptic thinking that it is violent, because your enemies, who are right now persecuting you, are going to be confounded. And they’re not going to be confounded in the, “Oh gee, I’m really sorry I persecuted you,” sense. They are going to be split apart and pulverized. And you’re going to be watching and you’re going to be applauding while they’re split apart and pulverized and tortured. That’s the nature of messianic, apocalyptic thinking. Apocalyptic meaning the end of the world in some kind of conflagration, messianic meaning the presence of a savior. The two are not the same thing, but they tend to go together because there’s going to be somebody who’s going to come and, amidst the bloodshed and the fire, usher in a millennial world. That is to say, a world in which bad things have been purged. And that messiah may be Jesus Christ at the second coming. It may be the messiah of Jewish tradition. Or in Shiite Islam, it may be the imam, the rightly guided imam. The Shiites have a leader. I just said that they are republican and egalitarian, but they’re not some kind of Occupy Wall Street, we don’t have any leaders, anarchic group. They have leaders but they are leaders who are inspired, not merely administrators of a huge bureaucracy. And these imams succeed each other and are recognized by the Shiite faction until the death of the eleventh imam — the death of the eleventh imam without any obvious successor. Who is the twelfth imam? And we enter into this period of what the book calls “occultation”. Not a word that you find used. Well, it’s got some sort of medical meaning too. Occultation, meaning what? Come on, this is in the reading.

Calligraphic representation of his name as it appears in Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina. Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdī (Arabic: محمد بن الحسن المهدي‎‎) (Persian: امام زمان‎‎) is believed by Twelver Shī‘a Muslims to be the Mahdī, an ultimate savior of humankind and the final Imām of the Twelve Imams who will emerge with Isa (Jesus Christ) in order to fulfill their mission of bringing peace and justice to the world. / Wikimedia Commons

He’s gone into hiding. Occult means hidden. There is a twelfth imam. We just don’t know where he is. He’s in a cave somewhere. And there are imams and imams after him. Either he is deathless or there are other imams. But they’re all hidden because they’re not ready yet. But when they are ready, centuries of grievance are going to be revenged.

So there’s a notion of a corrupt and misguided Islamic establishment and of a true subterranean occult, righteous level of the practice of the religion.

So Shiism tends to apocalyptic thinking, to prophecy. It exalts Ali and his followers. And it feels that it is in touch with the original desert, austere, egalitarian roots of Islam that have been corrupted by the monarchical, suspect purity of the Sunni caliphate.

Who becomes a Shiite? This is a hard question to answer because it is more than just a party or faction. If it was just a party or faction, it could not have lasted into the contemporary world with the force that it has. Who is discontent under Islam? It would seem logical that the people who would be discontent would be non-Arabs because there is increasingly, as the Islamic world takes shape, a population of people who do convert to Islam who were not Arabs. We’ve said that the pace of Islamization was slow but, nevertheless, it was persistent and logical. It’s logical that people should have converted to Islam, not only because it is a religion that to this day attracts lots of converts because it has a religious appeal and, as I have argued, it’s a do-able religion.

It’s a religion that does not have a huge number of self-mortifying precepts. It is a way of living a righteous life in the world and performing certain duties that are not tremendously onerous or very subtle and involve a lot of mental internal dialogue. So people are converting to Islam. These people are known collectively as mawali, singular, mawal. A mawal is a non-Arab Muslim. In the early years, by definition, a convert.

The day that Damascus fell, there were no Muslims in Damascus except maybe for some Arab traders. As of the death of Mohammed, all Muslims were Arabs. But within decades of this, with the conquests and conversion, there are lots of non-Arab Muslims. They may need to learn Arabic to understand the Koran. They’re supposed to go to Mecca and so forth. But they are not Arabs. Are they equal to Arabs? Well, Arabs are always, to this day, going to feel themselves to have a special relationship, a special status should we say, because Mohammed was an Arab and the movement starts in Arabia.

But as I’m sure you know, the largest countries from the point of view of population that are Islamic are not Arabic, almost at all. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. India is the second largest Muslim country in the world even though its population is so large that Islam is a minority there. Pakistan is the third largest, I think. These all are countries without Arabs. Iran is not Arabic. It is, as we all know, an Islamic republic. The world of Arabs is very numerous, but the world of non-Arab Muslims is more so.

And it is starting to become that way in the period that we’re talking about. The Arabs are simply a small number of conquerors. And particularly in Persia, where the pace of conversion is faster than that of say Egypt or Syria, there are a lot of mawali. At some point, some of the benefits of conversion, the fiscal benefits of conversion, are eliminated because the state, the Caliphate can’t afford to have a population that is only paying the low religious tax. So it would seem that the moment at which you say, “OK, we’re happy that you’re becoming a Muslim. You’re still paying land and poll taxes because we can’t actually aspire to make all Muslims equal from a fiscal point of view.” At that point you would have some angry malawi, at least so one would think. And so, one would think, these would be proto-Shiites or Shiite recruiting grounds.

There’s a lot of debate about this. Berkey kind of skirts over this issue. Other scholars doubt that this is the case. They don’t actually think there’s such a close connection between the Shiite party and discontented people. Or at least there is a connection between the Shiite party and discontented people, but the discontented people are not discontent because of their tax position.

The presence of discontent within Islam is a constant. The presence of prophecy within Islam is a constant, even though the teaching of the religion has been that Mohammed is the last prophet. It’s very hard to put a stop to prophecy in the Christian religion, in the Jewish religion, in the Muslim religion. Once you have started to talk about inspired religious leaders, they’re going to crop up even after you’ve declared an end of religious charisma.