At the time of Muhammad's death, Islam was primarily a local phenomena. It was little noticed outside Arabia but within a 100 years after Muhammad’s death, it was the glue that held together an empire that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees in the west, and Himalayas in east, and was one of the greatest unifying force in the history of mankind.
While Christianity was spread around the world by missionaries, Islam was mainly spread by conquering armies. This was the case not because of something particularly vicious or warlike about the Arabs or Muslims but rather because the areas the Arabs invaded were either weak or sparsely populated.
Islam swept through the Middle East and North Africa, filing a void left by the anarchy and decadence of waning Byzantine rule. Byzantium at the time the Arabs conquered the Middle East in the 7th century was worn out from its battles with Avars and Persians and the plague and was not the empire it was two centuries earlier. The Persians had similar problems, and many of their subjects had grown weary of their rule.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Since its emergence in seventh-century Arabia, the religion of Islam spread rapidly, by swift military conquest and by conversion, throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Islam had already spread into northern Africa by the mid-seventh century A.D., only a few decades after the Prophet Muhammad moved with his followers from Mecca to Medina on the neighboring Arabian Peninsula (622 A.D./1 A.H.). The Arab conquest of Spain and the push of Arab armies as far as the Indus River culminated in an empire that stretched over three continents, a mere hundred years after the Prophet's death.
By the seventeenth century, areas under Islamic religious and political control stretched from the southern Philippines across southern Asia and the Middle East through Turkey and into central Europe.[Source: Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
Websites and Resources: Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net
Impact of Arab Expansion
The so-called Arab invasions in the 7th century were among the least destructive in history. The Islamic conquest was not only speedy but permanent. Nearly all of the conquered territory remain Muslim today. You can't say that about the Roman, Persian or Mongol empires.
Wherever the Muslims went they also carried with them Arab culture. The cultures of the assimilated territories, which included places occupied by Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, were influenced by the religion and culture of the Arab invaders.
The Arabic language and Arabic culture was spread with Islam. But even so a concept of ethnic nationalism, with a common language, never really developed, nor did the notion of territorial nations defined by formal borders. What existed were mainly Muslim-ruled cities and their hinterlands.
The conquered people were subjugated politically but over time their culture, customs, administrative practices, arts and world view transformed their conquerors. The process continues today.
In the early years it was common for non-Arabs to convert to Islam and at the same time become an Arab by forming a relationship with an Arab tribe. Later on converting to Islam and become an Arab became a separate process.
Arab Expansion in the Middle East
After the prophets death in 632, the first Arab attacks were little more than Bedouin raids organized in Medina. Muslims were forbidden from attacking other Muslims. Instead they attacked infidels to the north in Byzantium and Persia—both weakened by years of fighting each other. Byzantines were Christians. Persi was under the control of the Zoroastrian Sassanids.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Although Muhammad died in 632, his followers, led by a series of four caliphs (Arabic: khalifa, "successor") known as the Rightly Guided, continued to spread the message of Islam. Under their command, the Arab armies carried the new faith and leadership from the Arabian Peninsula to the shores of the Mediterranean and to the eastern reaches of Iran. The Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt from the Byzantine empire, while Iraq and Iran, the heart of the Sasanian empire, succumbed to their forces. Here in these lands, Islam fostered the development of a religious, political, and cultural commonwealth and the creation of a global empire.\^/
Under Caliph Omar (634-44) the Arabs made their greatest gains. Muslim armies invaded Iraq, Syria and Egypt and moved into Persia and North Africa. By the end of his ten year reign nearly all the Middle East was under Arab control. Omar was brilliant military leader. He called himself the “commander of the faithful” and was able establish himself as a de facto king over Bedouins who chaffed under monarchies. He was able harness Arab raiding urges, which bubbled under the surface among Muslims who were not allowed to fight each other, against non-Muslims to conquer much of the Middle East. There is also evidence that many of the warriors were motivated by the opportunity to seize land and booty not just religious zeal.
Arabs Conquer Persia
Within one year of Muhammad's death in 632, Arabia itself was secure enough to allow his secular successor, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to begin the campaign against the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. Abu Bakr defeated the Byzantine army at Damascus in 635 and then began his conquest of Iran. According to an often told story in Iran, Muhammad sent a letter from Mecca to the Sassanid King, Khosrow Parviz, inviting him to embrace Islam. The king’s response was to arrogantly tear up the letter. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]
Weakened decades of fighting the Romans and Byzantines, the Sassanids in Iran and Iraq fell easily to the Arabs between A.D. 637 and 642. In 637 Arabs under Saad ibn Abi Waqqas defeated the Persians under Yazdegird III in the Battle of Qadisiyyah near Baghdad and seized the Sassanid stronghold of Ctesiphon (renamed Madain)—an island between the Tigres and Euphrates—gaining control of Mesopotamia. In n 641-42 the Arabs defeated the Sassanid army at Nahavand. After that, Iran lay open to the invaders. At that time Persia was wealthy and full of luxuries. The Arabs exchanged gold (yellow money), which they were unfamiliar with for silver (white money), which was their traditional form of currency. One Arab soldier kidnaped the daughter of a rich Persian nobleman and sold her back to her father for 1,000 dirhams. When he was told he could have demanded many times that amount he replied he had never heard of a number lager than 10,000.
The Sassanids were defeated with relative ease because they were weak from fighting the Byzantines and internal divisions and the country’s agriculture had been destroyed by flooding. Many Sassanid soldiers who were Arabs switched sides. The Islamic conquest was aided by the material and social bankruptcy of the Sassanids; the native populations had little to lose by cooperating with the conquering power. Moreover, the Muslims offered relative religious tolerance and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without resistance. It was not until around 650, however, that resistance in Iran was quelled. Conversion to Islam, which offered certain advantages, was fairly rapid among the urban population but slower among the peasantry and the dihqans. The majority of Iranians did not become Muslim until the ninth century.*
Persia Under Arab Rule
Arabs—mostly the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphs— controlled Persia for nearly 600 years and replaced the indigenous Zoroastrian faith with Islam. However, the eastern pat of the Muslim world, namely Iran, did not absorb Arab culture as readily as in the west. The Arabic language and culture didn’t penetrate into Iran as it did in other places. Persians continued to speak Persian and maintain links with their pre-Islamic culture while people in the west replaced local languages with Arabic and disavowed their old ways. There was friction between the Arab rulers and their Persian subjects.
Although the conquerors, especially the Umayyads (the Muslim rulers who succeeded Muhammad from 661-750), tended to stress the primacy of Arabs among Muslims, the Iranians were gradually integrated into the new community. The Muslim conquerors adopted the Sassanid coinage system and many Sassanid administrative practices, including the office of vizier, or minister, and the divan, a bureau or register for controlling state revenue and expenditure that became a characteristic of administration throughout Muslim lands. Later caliphs adopted Iranian court ceremonial practices and the trappings of Sassanid monarchy. Men of Iranian origin served as administrators after the conquest, and Iranians contributed significantly to all branches of Islamic learning, including philology, literature, history, geography, jurisprudence, philosophy, medicine, and the sciences.*
The Arabs were in control, however. The new state religion, Islam, imposed its own system of beliefs, laws, and social mores. In regions that submitted peacefully to Muslim rule, landowners kept their land. But crown land, land abandoned by fleeing owners, and land taken by conquest passed into the hands of the new state. This included the rich lands of the Sawad, a rich, alluvial plain in central and southern Iraq. Arabic became the official language of the court in 696, although Persian continued to be widely used as the spoken language. The shuubiyya literary controversy of the ninth through the eleventh centuries, in which Arabs and Iranians each lauded their own and denigrated the other's cultural traits, suggests the survival of a certain sense of distinct Iranian identity. In the ninth century, the emergence of more purely Iranian ruling dynasties witnessed the revival of the Persian language, enriched by Arabic loanwords and using the Arabic script, and of Persian literature.*
When Arabs conquered Persia, Sassanid bureaucrats retained their positions. Arab leaders were entranced by Persian culture. Many employed Persian artists and poets in their court. Some learned to speak Persian. Persian literature art and science continued to thrive under Arab rule and helped enrich Arab culture. In 10th century, a new style of high literature appeared written in Persian with Arabic script and enhanced y Arabic words. The Persian provinces produced some of Islam's greatest scholars and poets: Hafiz, Saadi and Imar Khayyam.
Arrival of Islam in Central Asia
Between 644 and 650, under Caliph Uthman, Muslims established Muslim rule in Iran, Afghanistan and the Sind area of Pakistan. The Arabs first invaded Mawarannahr—an Iranian Songdian province in present-day Uzbekistan—in the middle of the seventh century through sporadic raids during their conquest of Persia. Available sources on the Arab conquest suggest that the Soghdians and other Iranian peoples of Central Asia were unable to defend their land against the Arabs because of internal divisions and the lack of strong indigenous leadership. The Arabs, on the other hand, were led by a brilliant general, Qutaybah ibn Muslim, and they also were highly motivated by the desire to spread their new faith (the official beginning of which was in A.D. 622). Because of these factors, the population of Mawarannahr was easily conquered. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
The Muslim armies moved quickly through Iran but were halted in present-day Uzbekistan by the Turks of Transoxiana in A.D. 642. A stalemate ensured. The Arabs got around it in A.D. 700, and seized control of Central Asia with the capture of Bukhara in 709, Samarkand in 712 and Kashgar in 714. The caliph's governor of Persia, Qutayba ibn Muslim, crossed the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the deserts of Turkestan. His fierce cavalry quickly captured Bukhara and Samarkand.
Islam was introduced by Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries but also spread by Sufi teachers, who wanders in deserts, steppes and mountains. The new religion spread gradually in the region. The native cultures, which in some respects already were being displaced by Persian influences before the Arabs arrived, were displaced farther in the ensuing centuries. Nevertheless, the destiny of Central Asia as an Islamic region was firmly established by the Arab victory over the Chinese armies in 750 in a battle at the Talas River.
Muslim Rule in Central Asia
The conquest of Central Asia by Islamic Arabs, which was completed in the eighth century A.D., brought to the region a new religion and culture that continue to be dominant. Before the arrival of Islam many of the people in Central Asia were animists, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Muslims introduced an alphabet and high-level scholarship. Chinese captured in Samarkand taught the Arabs the art of papermaking, which later made its way across the Muslim world to Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
Under Arab rule, Central Asia retained much of its Iranian character, remaining an important center of culture and trade for centuries after the Arab conquest. However, until the tenth century the language of government, literature, and commerce was Arabic. Mawarannahr continued to be an important political player in regional affairs, as it had been under various Persian dynasties. In fact, the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled the Arab world for five centuries beginning in 750, was established thanks in great part to assistance from Central Asian supporters in their struggle against the then-ruling Umayyad Caliphate. *
During the height of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and the ninth centuries, Central Asia and Mawarannahr experienced a truly golden age. Bukhoro became one of the leading centers of learning, culture, and art in the Muslim world, its magnificence rivaling contemporaneous cultural centers such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. Some of the greatest historians, scientists, and geographers in the history of Islamic culture were natives of the region. *
As the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken and local Islamic Iranian states emerged as the rulers of Iran and Central Asia, the Persian language began to regain its preeminent role in the region as the language of literature and government. The rulers of the eastern section of Iran and of Mawarannahr were Persians. Under the Samanids and the Buyids, the rich culture of Mawarannahr continued to flourish. *
Spread of Islam to Spain
The first Arabs arrived in Spain in 710. Although the conquerors were made up of Arabs originally from the Middle East, Berbers from North Africa and mixed Arab-Berbers, the Spanish lumped them all together and called them “Moors” (“Moros” in Spanish) or Arabs. The Muslims called Spain “al-Andalus” (a name which has survived as "Anadulusia," the southern part of Spain).
In A.D. 711, 7,000 Moorish (Arab-Berber) troops led by a Berber a slave named Tariq arrived in Spain from Northern Africa and conquered the divided Christian Visagoths that occupied Spain and defeated the last Visagoth King. Roderick (Rodrigo in modern Spanish). The Rock of Gibraltar (Jabal al-Tariq) was named after Tariq. The Moors were joined by Arab soldiers from the Syria-based Umayyad dynasty. They advanced northward and conquered the entire peninsula until they were finally turned back in southern France 21 years later.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “On July 19, 711, an army of Arabs and Berbers unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, through diplomacy and warfare, they brought the entire peninsula except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north under Islamic control; however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andalus by Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba. Of works of art and other material culture only coins and scant ceramic fragments remain from this early period of the Umayyad governors (711–56). [Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
Spain Under Muslim Rule
Spain is the only western European nation to be controlled by Muslims, which segregated it from the rest of Europe during much of the Middle Ages. Under the Muslim Umayyad dynasty, Spain was the richest part of Europe and Muslim cities such as Grenada and Cordoba were much more advanced in science, medicine and the arts than their counterparts in Christian Europe.
There were fairly large waves of Arab immigrants to Spain in the early stages but after a while most of the newly arriving Muslims were Berbers. Muslims initially ruled over a non-Muslim majority. Over time many people accepted Islam and some even began speaking Arabic. It is estimated that by the 10th century, majority of the inhabitants in Spain were Muslims. For the most part they lived peacefully with Christians and Jews.
Muslims stayed in Spain for seven centuries and ruled there unchallenged for three centuries. Sometimes the Muslims controlled nearly all the Iberian peninsula. Other times they controlled only the southern half. They ruled mostly with great tolerance towards non-Muslims.
Battle of Poitiers
In 732, Charles Martel defeated an army of Spanish Muslim at Poitiers (Tours) in southern France in 732. European historians have sometimes declared this as one of the most pivotal battles in human history because it kept the Muslims out of the heart of Europe and was main reason why Europe is not a Muslim territory today. But in reality the loss was not a big disaster for the Muslims, who were not really very interested in Europe at that time because they found the weather unfavorable and saw little worth conquering.
Charles Martel was Charlemagne's grandfather and the Frankish leader of the West Merovingians (also known as the Neustrians, eastern Austrasians or Frenchmen). He was pitted against an invading force, some say, of perhaps 60,000 Muslim commanded by the Yemenite Abd-ar-Rahman at Poitiers. Other say the the army was much smaller was more of a raiding party than an invading force. In any case, the Arab army assembled by the Moroccan leader Berber Othman crossed the Pyrenees from Spain (then a Muslim territory) and advanced across southern France on a Roman road, claiming several rich Christian monasteries as they went, until the met Martels army south of the central French town of Tours.
The French army consisted mainly of infantrymen and the Arab force, light cavalry. The two great armies faced each for a week before the Arabs finally attacked. Equipped with shields, swords, axes, javelins and battle-axes, and packed together like a stone wall, Martel's Frenchmen held off the Muslim charge, and when it appeared they had exhausted themselves the French counter attacked and swept around a weak Arab flank and through a stroke of luck killed Abd-ar-Rahman.
By the next morning the Arabs had begun retreating back to Spain and, although later on Muslims would occupy Sicily and parts of Italy, they would never again try a full scale invasion of Western Europe. For his efforts, Charles was nicknamed "The Hammer." There are a couple of theories how Martel defeated the Arabs at Tours in A.D. 732. One is that his heavily armored Frankish cavalrymen on heavy horses stood firm against Arab attacks on smaller horses. Another theory has it that the Arab horsemen were unable to penetrate the tight Frankish phalanx. The victory marked the switch to heavily-armored, cavalry-oriented tactics.
Arab Expansion in Africa
In sub-Sahara Africa along the Indian Ocean, Islam was spread peacefully by missionaries and merchants on ships. In the Sahara and west Africa, Islam was brought to places like Kumbi, Gao and Timbuktu by Tuareg caravans that carried salt, ivory, slaves, gold, sugar, cloth, leather and brassware. Islam spread as far as the Niger River. Malians traded with Berbers and Arabs for centuries before adopting Islam in the 11th century. By the 13th century Muslim merchants were well established on the coast of East Africa.
The Sahara economy was largely based on camel caravans that moved goods between the heart of black Africa to the Mediterranean. Islam expanded into sub-Sahara Africa and would have spread further south were it not for tsetse flies wiping out the camels of Muslim missionaries and conquerors.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Between the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab traders and travelers, then African clerics, began to spread the religion along the eastern coast of Africa and to the western and central Sudan (literally, "Land of Black people"), stimulating the development of urban communities. Given its negotiated, practical approach to different cultural situations, it is perhaps more appropriate to consider Islam in Africa in terms of its multiple histories rather then as a unified movement. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
“The spread of Islam throughout the African continent was neither simultaneous nor uniform. The first converts were the Sudanese merchants, followed by a few rulers and courtiers (Ghana in the eleventh century and Mali in the thirteenth century). The masses of rural peasants, however, remained little touched. In the eleventh century, the Almoravid intervention, led by a group of Berber nomads who were strict observers of Islamic law, gave the conversion process a new momentum in the Ghana empire and beyond. The spread of Islam throughout the African continent was neither simultaneous nor uniform, but followed a gradual and adaptive path. However, the only written documents at our disposal for the period under consideration derive from Arab sources (see, for instance, accounts by geographers al-Bakri and Ibn Battuta).\^/
“Islamic political and aesthetic influences on African societies remain difficult to assess. In some capital cities, such as Ghana and Gao, the presence of Muslim merchants resulted in the establishment of mosques. The Malian king Mansa Musa (r. 1312–37) brought back from a pilgrimage to Mecca the architect al-Sahili, who is often credited with the creation of the Sudano-Sahelian building style. Musa's brother, Mansa Suleyman, followed his path and encouraged the building of mosques, as well as the development of Islamic learning. Islam brought to Africa the art of writing and new techniques of weighting. The city of Timbuktu, for instance, flourished as a commercial and intellectual center, seemingly undisturbed by various upheavals. \^/
“Timbuktu began as a Tuareg settlement, was soon integrated into the Mali empire, then reclaimed by the Tuareg, and finally incorporated into the Songhai empire. In the sixteenth century, the majority of Muslim scholars in Timbuktu were of Sudanese origin. On the continent's eastern coast, Arabic vocabulary was absorbed into the Bantu languages to form the Swahili language. On the other hand, in many cases conversion for sub-Saharan Africans was probably a way to protect themselves against being sold into slavery, a flourishing trade between Lake Chad and the Mediterranean. For their rulers, who were not active proselytizers, conversion remained somewhat formal, a gesture perhaps aimed at gaining political support from the Arabs and facilitating commercial relationships. The strongest resistance to Islam seems to have emanated from the Mossi and the Bamana, with the development of the Segu kingdom. Eventually, sub-Saharan Africans developed their own brand of Islam, often referred to as "African Islam," with specific brotherhoods and practices.\^/
Limits of Arab-Muslim Expansion
In the 11th and 12th centuries Turks began taking over large swaths of Arab-Muslim territory. In the 13th century the Mongols occupied much of the Middle East but they didn’t remain long and Muslim dynasties once again reasserted themselves.
In 15th century Muslim Turks conquered Constantinople and drove the Byzantines from Anatolia and but around the same time, Spain had been lost completely to Christians. Parts of Balkans embraced Islam after they were conquered by the Ottomans in the 15th century.
After being stopped at Tours in 732 and held in check by the Byzantines and Chinese, the Muslims settled down in their newly won lands and began governing them and developing culture. The main centers were in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba.
Conquering Arabs remained a minority at first. They tolerated Christians and Jews as "People of Book" and used taxes to build empire. Over the centuries the population in the Arab-Muslim controlled lands converted to Islam, encouraged by tax breaks and job opportunities.
In the central and western parts of the Arab-Muslim empire Arabic became the dominate language, but in the east indigenous languages dominated. In the places that became Arabic-speaking, the Arabs were able to impose their culture and not absorb the local cultures partly because their religious book was written in Arabic, and could not be translated, hence Arabic became the dominant language at the expense of the local one.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated May 2016