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Religion: Rapid expansion of Islam since 610

Spread of Islam, rapid expansion of the religion of Islam through conversion and military conquest in the 7th and 8th centuries. Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam, began preaching his visions in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) in 610. Within 25 years he and his followers, called Muslims, had gained control of the entire Arabian Peninsula, and Islam was fast becoming the world’s third great monotheistic religion, after Judaism and Christianity. By 650 an organized Islamic state ruled Arabia (also known as the Arabian Peninsula), the entire Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine), and Egypt; by the early 700s Islam dominated a wide area, stretching from the fringes of China and India in the east to North Africa and Spain in the west.

The remarkable speed of this religious expansion can be attributed to the fact that it was accompanied by military conquest. Muhammad drew Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam by his forceful personality, the promise of salvation for those who died fighting for Islam, and the lure of fortune for those who succeeded in conquest. The caravan raids of the early years of Islam soon become full-scale wars, and empires and nations bowed to the power of this new religious, military, political, economic, and social phenomenon.

Muhammad is the chief prophet of Islam, one of the world’s major religions. Islam is based largely on the Qur’an (Koran), believed by Muslims to be divine revelation conveyed to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. Author Michael Cook describes the core concepts of Muhammad’s worldview, in particular how the Islamic conception of the universe equates religion and politics. Quoting liberally from the Qur’an, Cook argues that Muhammad’s political worldview proved instrumental to the survival and spread of Islam.
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Before Muhammad arrived, Medina had been wracked by violent feuds between the town’s major clans (groups of families who claimed descent from a common ancestor). Two years earlier, several clan leaders had met Muhammad and heard his teachings during a pagan pilgrimage to Mecca. The major clan leaders had invited Muhammad to Medina to arbitrate clan disputes as an impartial religious authority. In return, the leaders had pledged to accept Muhammad as a prophet, which lent credibility to the new religion of Islam. Those Medinians who converted to Islam were called the Helpers. Muhammad succeeded in expanding his role from arbiter of disputes to head of a new Arab community. He did this by making converts among Medina’s residents, by raiding Meccan caravans, and, eventually, by driving out the three Jewish tribes who conducted most of the town’s farming and metalworking.

The men who had made the Hegira with Muhammad—known as the Companions of the prophet—were accustomed to the trade economy of Mecca and initially had no means of livelihood in mainly agricultural Medina. Muhammad decided to raid Meccan caravans to provide the Companions with income, as well as to accomplish two larger goals. First, success would restore the Companions’ self-respect, which had suffered by being driven from Mecca, and second, it would demonstrate the truth of Muhammad’s visions and indicate that they had God’s blessing. Also, by ruining Mecca’s trade he would demonstrate to the Meccans that Islam was something bigger than they had supposed.

After a number of unproductive tries, the Muslims finally fell upon a caravan and captured it in January 624. They killed one of its guards, shedding the first blood in the name of Islam. The Helpers were troubled because the killing had taken place during a pagan sacred month in which bloodshed was forbidden. Two of Muhammad’s revelations from the Qur’an supported the raid (2:217,218). According to the revelations, the action of the Meccans in driving Muhammad and the Companions out of Mecca was worse than the violation of the pagan sacred month. The attack on the Meccan caravan sparked a series of clashes between Mecca and Muhammad.

In March 624 another victory further strengthened Muhammad’s fledgling Muslim group. Muhammad and about 300 of his men battled a Meccan force three times their size at the oasis of Badr. It was a great victory for the Muslims, and later generations of Muslims considered it a mark of nobility to have fought at Badr. Mecca sought revenge for the 50 Meccans who died at Badr in a great battle fought the following March at a hill called Uhud. Some 3000 Meccans and about 700 Muslims were involved. The Meccans won the initial battle. Muhammad rallied his men, but the Meccans, satisfied with having exacted their revenge, broke off the battle and left.

In 627 Medina was attacked by a force of about 10,000, consisting of Meccans and their tribal allies. The Muslims dug a great trench around their positions, which prevented a cavalry breakthrough. As a result, the Meccans retired after a few weeks of siege, and this became known as the Battle of the Trench. Muhammad used this show of Muslim strength to complete the process of driving the three Jewish tribes out of Medina. The Jewish tribes had found it impossible to accept the prophethood of Muhammad and the universal message of Islam, which undermined the Jewish position as the chosen people. Two tribes had been expelled earlier, and Muhammad suspected the third, the Banu Qurayzah, of conspiring with the Meccans during the Battle of the Trench. Therefore, he had all the remaining Jewish men killed and the women and children sold into slavery. Muhammad was now in control of Medina.

Mecca’s rivalry with Medina and the Muslims concluded with a series of events initiated in 628. As a demonstration of his strength and goodwill, Muhammad and about 1000 Muslims made the pilgrimage to the Kaaba, an ancient sanctuary of the local gods, in Mecca. Outside Mecca, Muhammad concluded an agreement with the Meccans that called for a ten-year peace; allowed the Muslims to make the pilgrimage to the Kaaba; called for the cessation of raids on Meccan caravans; and enabled any tribes allied to Mecca or to Medina to change sides if they so desired.

Muhammad spent the next year extending his control over the tribes in his region. In 630 Muhammad, having attracted large numbers of the younger men of Mecca to join him, marched into Mecca with about 10,000 Muslims and took the city without much of a struggle. One of the younger men was Khalid ibn al-Walid, who would later become the ideal Arab Muslim warrior and earn the title “The Sword of Allah.” (Allah is the Arabic word for “God.”) Within ten years of having been driven out of Mecca, Muhammad returned with the religion of Islam on the rise.

Several weeks after taking Mecca, the Muslims were attacked by about 20,000 Bedouin Arab tribesmen. These nomadic Bedouins, who had resisted submission to Islam, may have been motivated to attack by Muhammad’s destruction of pagan idols in the Kaaba and the conversion of the Kaaba into Islam’s holiest shrine. Muhammad overwhelmingly defeated the Bedouins, leaving him the strongest leader in the Arabian Peninsula. Many Arab tribes then sought alliance with Muhammad. In seeking alliance, these tribes agreed to recognize the prophethood of Muhammad, accept the religion of Islam, and pay an alms tax (zakat). A great confederation of Arab tribes united through Islam was emerging in Arabia.

Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bakr, the father of Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha. Abu Bakr was the first caliph (khalifah, Arabic for “successor”) of Islam. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr was a member of the Quraysh clan. While neither Abu Bakr nor any subsequent caliph claimed the role of prophet, they were leaders of this new religious enterprise that was quickly becoming a political entity as well. The first four caliphs, all of whom were selected by some form of council of Muslims, would later be called al-Rashidun, the rightly guided caliphs. The epithet “rightly guided” was coined by later Islamic scholars to signify that these caliphs were the truest and most virtuous followers of Muhammad’s teachings and examples.

While Muhammad was alive the governance of the new community of Islam had presented few problems. Guidelines were provided by the revelations of the Qur’an, as well as by Muhammad himself, as God’s prophet. The early Muslim community, being ordered through divine guidance, was a theocracy. With Muhammad gone, administrative matters that could not be settled by the Qur’an were resolved according to examples from the prophet’s life, as reflections of God’s will. The rightly guided caliphs came under harsh criticism from the early Muslim community any time they acted on their own judgment. As time passed, disagreements over these examples, or over interpretations of the examples, increasingly caused division within Islam.

Another issue Muhammad’s successors struggled with was the evolving ethnicity and culture of Muslims. In its earliest development Islam was intertwined with the Arab identity. In addition to the fact that Muhammad was an Arab and lived in an Arab environment, the Qur’an emphasized the fact that it was written in Arabic, and that this was the authentic revelation as it existed with God (43:3 and 12:2). The earliest Muslims therefore felt proud of being Arabs, and of their new Arab religion. As Islam spread to non-Arab regions, the question of whether or not Islam was an Arab religion would become another source of friction in the decades after Muhammad’s death.

Most of Abu Bakr’s short reign was spent putting down a series of local rebellions against Islamic rule, known as the Wars of Apostasy, or the Riddah wars. Shortly after the news of Muhammad’s death reached them, many Arab tribes renounced their allegiance to Islam in favor of new, local prophets. This was less a religious choice than a political and economic one, since the tribes used this as an excuse to govern themselves and stop paying the zakat, or alms tax. Abu Bakr took part in some of the fighting, but the main military leadership was provided by Khalid ibn al-Walid. The Riddah wars established Medina’s authority over all of Arabia and the inclusion of all of Arabia in the ummah, or community of Islam.

After the Riddah wars, Abu Bakr looked to extend Islamic territory northward, into present-day Iraq and Syria. This area and the rest of the Fertile Crescent had been a battleground between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanids of Persia for more than a century before the appearance of Islam. Already forged into an army by participation in the Riddah wars, and inspired by their new religion and the opportunity for plunder, the Arab Muslims successfully fought both the Byzantines and the Sassanids, whose forces were drained by years of warfare. Abu Bakr’s forces captured territory in southern Iraq, threatening the major Persian cities on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also began to push into Byzantine Syria.

Abu Bakr died late in August 634 and was succeeded as second caliph by Umar ibn al-Khuttab, or Umar I, father of Muhammad’s third wife. An early convert to Islam, Umar had been instrumental in getting the Helpers in Medina to accept Abu Bakr as the first caliph. Umar was also from a clan of the Quraysh tribe. Umar took the title of amir-al-mum-inin (Arabic for “commander of the believers”), indicating that Muslims were a nation in arms under their military commander.

Umar first sought to expand into Byzantine territory to the north. In September 635 the Muslims captured Damascus, and almost a year later the Byzantine force under Emperor Heraclius was defeated, signaling the end of effective Byzantine rule in the Fertile Crescent. Jerusalem, which would become the third most important Islamic city after Medina and Mecca, was taken in 638.

To the northeast, Muslim forces achieved similar success against the Persian Sassanids in present-day Iraq. The Sassanid king Yazdegerd III fought well, but despite his vast resources his army was defeated at the Battle of Al Qādisīyah in February 637. Ctesiphon, his capital on the Tigris, fell the same year. The Muslims pushed eastward, and by 642 they had captured the region of Khūzestān (Khuzistan) in present-day southwestern Iran.

Meanwhile, to the west, an army of Muslims under General Amr ibn-al-As had launched an attack against Egypt. In November 641 Alexandria surrendered to the Muslims. Umar established a garrison town near the head of the Nile River delta in the Roman city of Babylon. This became Al Fustat, the first capital of Muslim Egypt and the precursor of Cairo.

Umar organized his empire as it grew. As Muslims began to occupy and settle into populated areas of the Fertile Crescent, Umar created a new institution to ensure the protection of both the soldiers and the conquered populace. The soldiers, and eventually their families, would be housed in amsars (separate, militarized sections of old towns) or in new garrison towns. In the newly conquered areas the Arabs were a minority and by being limited to the amsars, they kept their identity as Arabs and could be more easily controlled by their leaders. In Syria, which was more populated to start with, amsars were constructed in existing towns, while in Iraq, which was less populated initially, new garrison towns such as Al Başrah and Al Kūfah were constructed.

Another of Umar’s institutions was the diwan, the official register of Muslim Arab soldiers, which would determine the distribution of fortune won in conquest. The diwan listed the names of all the Muslims from the original centers of Medina and Mecca as well as those who participated as soldiers in the conquering armies, and their dependents. The hierarchy of the names in the diwan, and therefore the size of each person’s share of the plunder, was determined by chronological order of acceptance of Islam, relationship to Muhammad, and service. Included were Aisha and Muhammad’s other wives, Muhammad’s relatives, the Companions, the Helpers, and men who had fought in the battles of Badr and Uhud, the Riddah wars, and the conquests of the Fertile Crescent. Moveable plunder, such as silver and gold, was divided among the troops on the spot. Veterans would each receive an annual stipend, but some of the more prominent took their share of the spoils in the form of land. The caliph would receive one-fifth of the plunder, the same amount Muhammad had received to help the poor of the community, and another one-fifth share would be sent to Medina

Caliph Uthman ibn Affan
Uthman ibn Affan was appointed the third caliph (spiritual and secular leader) of Islam in 644. In this Indian manuscript painting from the late 18th century, he is shown seated with prayer beads in his hand and a copy of the Qur’an, the sacred scripture of Islam, on a stand. During his caliphate, a standardized version of the Qur’an was achieved. This miniature painting in gouache, from the Deccan school, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
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Umar died in November 644. He was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan, the son-in-law of Muhammad. Like Muhammad, Uthman belonged to the Quraysh tribe, however to a different clan, the Umayyads, who had been prominent in Mecca before Muhammad.

Under Uthman conquests slowed and the garrison towns experienced unrest. Uthman, who represented the merchant class of Mecca, knew little of warfare and faced opposition from the military from the start. With less plunder from conquest to go around, soldiers were upset by the amount of wealth that continued to be sent to the caliph and his bureaucrats in Medina. Increasingly, the only bond between the soldiers and their leaders was Islam. In an effort to strengthen Islam, Uthman insisted on a single, standardized text for the Qur’an, and had all preexisting copies of the Qur’an burned. From this period forward the arrangement of the Qur’an from the longest to the shortest suras (chapters) was fixed. He also practiced nepotism, strongly favoring members of his own clan in the assignment of positions, which eroded his popular support.

In 656 groups of dissatisfied soldiers converged on Medina and rioted against Uthman, pelting him with stones in the mosque. Fearful that an army from Syria was coming to help the caliph, the soldiers broke into Uthman’s home in June 656 and murdered him. They then prevailed upon Ali, who had been sympathetic to the rebels and was the son-in-law of Muhammad, to accept the caliphate. Ali was opposed by the Umayyad clan and Muhammad’s wife Aisha, who felt he had become caliph unjustly.

Ali went north to Al Başrah with his loyal troops where, in December 656, he defeated an army of Aisha’s supporters in what is considered the first round of the first Islamic civil war. This war, which lasted from 656 to 661, later became known as the first fitnah (Arabic for “trial”) because it tested the unity of the Islamic community. After the first battle Ali moved from Medina to Al Kūfah where he had more support. There he was challenged by Muawiyah, the Umayyad governor of Syria.

Muawiyah refused to recognize Ali as caliph and engaged Ali’s forces in a battle at Siffin, in northern Syria, in 657. The battle was turning in Ali’s favor when he agreed to Muawiyah’s request to submit to arbitration the issue of whether Uthman had brought his death upon himself through his own mistakes, or had been unjustly killed. The decision, reached in 658, went against Ali, who refused to accept the verdict and tried to resume the battle. Meanwhile, a number of Ali’s supporters had deserted him, declaring that they could no longer follow Ali because by agreeing to arbitration he had gone against the Qur’an, the word of God. Ali responded by massacring many of the Kharijites, as the dissidents came to be known, an act that shocked his followers. Ali pursued the war against Muawiyah but was faced with opposition from every direction. Ali was murdered by a Kharijite in January 661. His son Hasan was pressured by Muawiyah not to push his claim to the caliphate. Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph, bringing an end to the period of the rightly guided caliphs and ushering in the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty.

After the civil war and the death of Ali, Islam was split into three factions. The first and smallest faction was the Kharijites. The major break was between the Shia Ali, the “partisans of Ali” (later known as the Shia Muslims or Shias), and those who accepted Muawiyah as caliph. The latter group comprised the majority of Muslims, and became known as the Sunnis (see Sunni Islam). The Shias called for the caliphate to revert to Ali’s family, believing that Ali was unjustly deposed and in fact had been chosen by God to succeed Muhammad himself (see Shia Islam). Ali’s cause was embraced by many of the poor and the weak who suffered as Ali had at the hands of the military might of the government.

 Muawiyah came to the caliphate by force, not election, and maintained his position through his ties with the Arab army in Syria. So close were the ties between the Umayyads and the Arab military class that almost nine decades of Umayyad rule has been called the period of the Arab Kingdom. Arabism came to rival, if not dominate Islam as the organizing principle of the state. This trend troubled traditional Muslims and the growing population of non-Arab Muslims. Muawiyah organized a new center of government in the garrison city of Damascus, signaling the emerging dominance of Syria over Medina and Mecca, and sought to unify his realm by placing the might of the Arab warrior class solidly behind the Umayyads.
 The Umayyads tried to channel the energy of their subjects and of the military into further conquest. North Africa became one of the main new areas of Islamic expansion. With the North African port cities in the hands of the Christian Byzantines, the Arabs first occupied the rural inland. In 670 they built the new garrison town of Al Qayrawān(in present-day Tunisia), and between 697 and 705 they captured Carthage. Nearby Tunis then became the Arabs’ naval base. Islam then spread among the native Berbers, who entered the Arab armies and were given the same share of the plunder as Arabs. One of the Berbers, Tariq ibn-Zayid, led the Muslim armies across the Mediterranean to Spain in 711 by way of Gibraltar. The combined Arab-Berber armies conquered Spain and had success in western France until they were defeated in 732 in the Battle of Tours by Frankish king Charles Martel, stopping their advance in Europe.

In addition to their westward expansion, the Umayyads also sought to destroy the Byzantine Empire by the conquest of Constantinople, which they failed to accomplish three times, in 669, from 674 to 680, and from 716 to 717. They also pressed forward on the eastern front, spreading through what is now Iran and Central Asia. The population in this area consisted of Iranian farmers, the Turkish military governing elite, and Chinese silk traders. By 667 the Arabs reached and crossed the Oxus River (now called the Amu Darya), and by 751 they had taken Samarqand and Toshkent (both in present-day Uzbekistan). Other Arab armies had already reached Sind (in present-day Pakistan) and the Indus River delta in 712. The Arabs, content to plunder and tax the wealth of the region, did not settle in these eastern areas but did spread Islam throughout the area.

Although the Umayyads hoped to unify their growing state, they faced opposition on several fronts, mainly from the mawali, or non-Arab Muslims, and the Shia Muslims.

As Islam spread into the Fertile Crescent and beyond, non-Arabs began to convert to Islam. But since Islam was an Arab movement from its beginnings, the mawali constituted a second-class group. They were known as mawali (Arabic for “clients”) because they were forced to attach themselves to, and provide services for, Arab Muslim tribes or individuals. The mawali lived in suburbs built around the amsars and worked as farmers, shopkeepers, craftspeople, and unskilled laborers. They served in the Arab infantry and were paid a smaller share of the plunder than Arabs. Their hope for advancement was for the government to place the emphasis on acceptance of Islam over being an Arab. However, the Umayyads could not reward all Muslims equally or there would not be enough wealth from plunder to go around. Moreover, the local Muslim communities relied on taxes paid by the mawali. This practice troubled the mawali, and bred discontent, disloyalty, and, eventually, rebellion.

Meanwhile, hostilities between the Umayyads and other Muslim factions, notably the Shias, continued. Before his death in 680, Muawiyah dispensed with the practice of electing a caliph by designating his son Yazid as heir apparent. This move angered groups that objected to the creation of a virtual Umayyad kingship. Each group had a different opinion as to who, of all the relatives of Muhammad and the descendents of people close to Muhammad, was entitled to lead the Islamic community. The Shias believed that the caliph should be a descendent of Muhammad through Ali. The Helpers felt that their contribution to Islam had been overlooked in the selection of the rightly guided caliphs, and that one of their number should have been selected. Many groups questioned the very faith of the Umayyads. In addition, the non-Arab Muslims felt that with the emphasis being placed more and more on Arabism rather than on Islam, avenues of social mobility were being closed to them.

The climate of discontent after the death of Muawiyah led to six decades of unrest and civil war. Months after Muawiyah died in 680, Shia Muslims rebelled in Al Kūfah, rallying behind Ali’s son Husayn. Ambushed on his way from Mecca to Al Kūfah, Husayn and his party of relatives and supporters were massacred by Umayyad forces. The Al Kūfah Shia rebellion was put down, but the killing of Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, shocked the Islamic world, and led to increased sympathy for the Shias. Soon thereafter, descendents of the Companions and the Helpers revolted in Medina, and Meccans challenging the faith of the Umayyads rose up in Mecca. The Umayyads recaptured Medina, pillaging the city for three days. Syrian armies unsuccessfully besieged Mecca, in the process destroying the Kaaba, the holy shrine of Islam. Arabia soon descended into chaos, as tribal antagonisms that had been dormant since Muhammad’s time erupted into warfare. Frequent mawali rebellions spread unrest beyond Arabia and across Islamic territory.

The Umayyads’ territorial expansion intensified their social problems as more garrison cities and more non-Arabs converting to Islam led to more mawali unhappiness. In the 740s Shia rebels formed alliances with another Arab clan, the Abbasids, who were descendents of Abbas, an uncle of Muhammad. The Abbasids proclaimed that all Muslims, Arab or non-Arab, should receive equal treatment. After eliciting the support of rebellious Persian mawalis, this confederation won a decisive battle over Umayyad forces in Iraq in 750 and overthrew the Umayyads (except in Spain, which remained under Umayyad control). The Abbasid dynasty moved the capital to Baghdād, restored order, and instituted reforms meant to give justice to all Muslims.

Only 120 years after Muhammad captured Mecca, the Abbasids inherited an Islamic empire that extended from North Africa through the Fertile Crescent, onto the Iranian plateau, over the Oxus River across Central Asia to the frontiers of China and India. Over the next several centuries, the Abbasids slowly lost territory to rebellious provinces. Finally, all of the territory in Asia was lost to the invading Mongol Empire in the 13th century. Although the Islamic empire collapsed, the religion of Islam persisted throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. Eventually missionaries and traders spread the faith into sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. Today the ummah, or community of Islam, consists of more than 1 billion members

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