The Rise and Expansion of Islam in the Medieval World
The region had been freed from lingering influences of the Byzantine empire and was left to develop on its own.
By Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Although Islam is a sister religion of Christianity and Judaism, Christians are generally ignorant and contemptuous of its origins and beliefs. One might note that Muslims hold education and learning in high esteem. Like the Jewish faith, Islam encourages the faithful to learn to read and instructors in Islamic lands customarily begin each lecture with the bismallah: BISMA’LLAH AR-RA’CHMAN WA’ AR-RA’CHIM.
And let’s not say “Mohammedanism.”
Here are some useful distinctions:
- Muhammad: the prophet of Islam
- Islam: “the yoke” – the religion revealed to Muhammad
- Muslim: a follower of Islam
- Arabic: usually refers to the Arabic language. Most Muslims are not Arabs, although most Arabs are Muslims.
Mecca in 570 CE
Mecca was an agricultural center of the Arabian periphery. It was ruled by the heads of the major clans of the city’s population. It was the center of Bedouin worship. The nomadic peoples of the interior brought the physical embodiments of their gods to be placed in the building in the center of Mecca called the Ka’aba for safe-keeping. Individuals went their on pilgrimage (hadj) and entire clans went there for collective worship during the sacred truce of Ramadan. Thus Mecca was a center of all Arabia, and obtained considerable wealth from its visitors.
Mecca was also a major caravan center. The Persian-Byzantine wars had blocked the overland route of the silk and spice road to India and China, and pirates and bandits blocked the Red Sea to regular commerce. Goods came by sea from India, landed at Aden (in Yemen) where they were joined by trade goods from the interior of Africa, and carried in caravans up the western coast of Arabia — through Mecca and Medina to Petra in Palestine, where the route split. The northern fork went to Damascus and the southern to Alexandria.
An observation: although largely a tribal society of polytheists, the inhabitants of Mecca lived in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the time and were exposed to a wide range of ideas. Their culture was oral, but rich.
Muhammad (570-632 CE)
Born to a poor branch of the major clan of the Khoraish, and orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was reared by his uncle, who got him a job with a caravan company. He eventually married Khadija, owner of the company, and settled down to a dignified life of study — although he could not read — contemplation, and poetry. He began to contemplate religion, and would retire to a cave outside Mecca to meditate upon the universe. A vision of the angel Gabriel appeared to him, telling him that he had a mission from god. God had written a book — the Qu’ran — at the beginning of time that contained all wisdom. Gabriel would tell him from time to time a portion of that book and he would reveal it to the people. The first message was THERE IS NO GOD BUT GOD, AND MUHAMMAD IS THE PROPHET OF GOD.
Muhammad slowly gathered a group of followers. One of my professors once remarked that the most convincing evidence that could be adduced in support of the claim that Muhammad was inspired by God was the fact that he convinced his wife, Khadija, that he was God’s holy and final prophet. Muhammad’s activities aroused the anger of the leaders of Mecca since he insisted on the existence of only one god and they profited greatly from the pilgrims who came to Mecca to worship their many idols. He was threatened with death and his own kindred agreed that they would not protect him or seek vengeance if he were killed.
Under such circumstances, Mecca was a dangerous place to be. In 622, he and his followers fled north to the caravan city of Medina, to which he had been invited as chief and judge to mediate between the Jews, Christians, and idolaters who inhabited the town. Their escape from Mecca was the hijra (the flight), regarded by Muslims as the beginning of Islam and the first year of the Muslim calendar.
Muhammad soon became master of Medina, partly by converting some of the inhabitants of the city and partly by expelling those residents who refused to accept the revelations he offered them. He then began to wage war against the inhabitants of Mecca. Since Mecca was generally regarded by the Arabs as the religious center of the land, Muhammad knew that his preachings would never be widely accepted until he could preach from the holy places of Mecca. After a long struggle, the Meccans finally yielded and accepted Islam. Muhammad then destroyed all of the idols kept there and honored the city as the center of the faith. He then revealed the obligations of Islam: the Pillars of the Faith. These were 1) the Profession the public statement of faith that there is but one God and that Muhammad is His prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) the obligation of giving alms to widows, orphans, the poor, and needy, 4) to try to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life, and 5) to keep the fast of the month of Ramadan. There are three additional duties: 1) to wage holy way (jihad) against those who persecute the faithful, 2) to observe some dietary restrictions, such as not eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages to excess (which most Muslims have converted into an absolute prohibition), and 3) trying to learn to read the Qu’ran in the Arabic language in which Muhammad spoke it and in which followers wrote down his words.
When Muhammad died in 632, many of his followers were panicked although he had prepared them for this eventuality in his last sermo. His chief disciples brought order, however, and in time created an institutionalized faith, although without an organized priesthood or connection between church and state. There is a legend that, when Muhammad died, Abu Bakr, chief of his followers, went to the window of the room in which his body lay to address the crowd that had gathered around the house. His words were (more or less) "Those of you who worshipped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. Those of you who worship God, know that God is eternal>" (opens in a new tab)”>last sermon His chief disciples brought order, however, and in time created an institutionalized faith, although without an organized priesthood or connection between church and state. There is a legend that, when Muhammad died, Abu Bakr, chief of his followers, went to the window of the room in which his body lay to address the crowd that had gathered around the house. His words were (more or less) “Those of you who worshipped Muhammad, know that Muhammad is dead. Those of you who worship God, know that God is eternal>”
A fundamental feature of this institutionalization was the compilation of the Qu’ran. We have noted that Muhammad himself was illiterate, but some of his close followers were not. When Muhammad repeated a revelation, there was usually someone near to write down his words. When it came time to compile all these separate documents, no one wanted to claim the editorial authority necessary to arrange them in chronological or topical order. They instead adopted the simple and non-committal principle of arranging them according to length, with the shortest coming first. Thus the Qu’ran consists of a number of revelations originally spoken by Muhammad and called suras. There are also a number of “traditions” (hadith) that some Muslims are willing to accept as almost as authoritative as the Qu’ran. The hadith are believed to be revelations given by Muhammad that were not written down but which have been passed down by word of mouth from the person who actually heard them spoken. Since Muslims believe that the Qu’ran contains all of the knowledge needed for salvation, Islamic law is based upon the suras with the addition of hadith that seem valid and appropriate to the situation.
The Expansion of Islam
By 732, Islam had spread from Spain to Sumatra, and Muslim ships dominated both the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. The reasons for this rapid expansion were numerous:
- The Persian and Byzantine empires were exhausted and could not resist Muslim attacks.
- Many people in the lands of both the Byzantine and Persian empires favored monotheism and found the Byzantine trinity and Persian dualism distasteful. Islam was more to their liking, and they not only converted to Islam, but helped to spread it further.
- The Muslims swept away the burdensome taxation and top-heavy government in those lands that accepted them.
- Islam was simple to understand, and its observances were clear and unequivocal. It did not call for asceticism and condemned excesses of all kinds.
- Conversion was a simple and straightforward matter.
- The Muslims practiced at least a limited religious toleration, and the social and economic doctrines of Islam were far more humane than those of the other peoples of the time. Islam was a liberal force. Religious toleration in Islam consists of the recognition of the revelations given by God to the Jews, whom the Muslims call “The People of the Law,” and to the Christians, who are called “The People of the Book.” Muslims recognize the Jewish prophets and the Christian Jesus as having been inspired by God but accord the highest position to Muhammad as “The Seal of the Prophets,” to whom God revealed his final and complete message. One should note, however, that the Qu’ran does not suggest that those who worship Idols should be tolerated. In fact, it states that they are either to be converted to Islam or face war.
- Arabic gave the peoples of Islam a common language, and the Qu’ran gave them a common set of laws and values.
It is useful to think a moment about the nature of the Muslim expansion. Some people regard it as amazing that the relatively small and primitive – if one can use such a word in such circumstances – people as the Arabs were able to defeat powerful empires and gain control of such vast expanses of territory in so short a time. One must remember that we are talking about the Muslim expansion, not Arab conquests. The expansion of Islam was as much, or perhaps much more, a matter of religious conversion than it was of military conquest.
The Effects of the Rise of Islam
The cultural unity of the Mediterranean, the creation and essence of the Roman empire, disappeared as a Semitic – remember that many of the inhabitants of the Byzantine and Persian empires were of Semitic stock and that their native languages were of the Semetic family – and non-Christian society established itself in the region. The trade routes connecting the eastern and western branches of Christendom were weakened as the Muslims seized control of the sea. The Carolingians turned away from the Mediterranean, and Western Europe developed in a continental semi-isolation. The region was freed from lingering influences of the Byzantine empire and was left to develop on its own.
I make this point mainly because it is the picture presented in most textbooks. The actual situation seems to have been considerably more complex and even more difficult to explain. About 750, the West, under the first Carolingians, turned their attention from Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean and the center of their culture and political power moved to northern France and Germany. At about the same time the Byzantine empire ceased to rely so heavily on its Mediterranean fleets and to base its power on land armies supported by great agricultural estates in Anatolia. Under the Ummayyad dynasty of rulers, the Muslims had been active in the Mediterranean Sea and the center of their political power was in Damascus (in modern Syria). After a civil war had driven the Umayyads from power, the new rulers, the Abbasids, moved their base of power to the new city of Baghdad (in modern Iraq) in the lands of the old Persian empire. It would appear that, for some reason, all three civilizations simultaneously decided upon a policy of disengagement. It may well have been that the unity of the Mediterranean was not broken by the incursion of the Muslims except for a short while. For the next two hundred and fifty years, it would seem that the civilizations of the region simply ignored the great waterway that lay at their front doors.
In any event, it gives one something to think about.
Originally published by Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson, Lectures in Medieval History to the public domain.