The Rise of Islam
In order to understand international relations topics such as the role of religion in the Middle East, political Islamist parties, among other topics, it is imperative that students and scholars first better understand the rise of Islam, as well as the spread of Islam in its early history. In this article, we will discuss the origins of Islam, the conditions on the Arabian Peninsula in those early formative years of the religion, as well as the growth of Islam in terms of followers, and then later, territory. We will discuss Islam during the time of Muhammad, and then also examine the rise of Islam after his death.
The Middle East Before Islam
At the dawn of Islam, there were a number of faiths and political powers in the region. For example, the area that we today understand as call the “Middle East” was controlled by different political entities. As Cleveland & Bunton explain: “On the eve of the rise of Islam, the settled lands of the Middle East were ruled by two competing imperial states, the Roman-Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the eest. The Byzantine emperors were successors to the Caesars and presided over an imposing edifice of high cultural and political traditions that blended Greek learning, Roman administration, and Greek Orthodox Christianity. In the early seventh century, the emperor’s territorial possessions stretched from the Italian peninsula across southern Europe to the magnificent capital city of Constantinople” (5). They go on to explain that at the beginning of Islam, the Roman-Byzantine Empire had control of places such as Egypt, Palestine, and what is today known as Syria. They also had control over some parts of Iraq, as well as modern day Turkey.
These two sides began warring with one another in 540, and lasted until the year 629, and was quite politically and especially militarily costly for both empires. There were also many religious conflicts that arose between, and within each parts of the empires. For example, during this period, non-Christians were often persecuted in Byzantine, whereas in the Sasanian empire, while Zoroastrianism was the state faith, it was not as dominant within the population. Thus, there were many more diverse religious traditions here, and while this helped in terms of reducing rights abuses against those not willing to adhere to the religion of the state, scholars also suggest that “In the absence of a unifying religious affiliation with their ruler, many subjects of the Sasanian Empire lacked feelings of loyalty toward the state” (Cleveland & Bunton).
Arabia Before Islam
Before the birth of Islam, Arabia, where the Prophet Muhammad was born (Muhammad was born in 570bce), was an Arabia that was not controlled by either the Byzantine nor the Sasanian empires (although there were “client states” in Northern Arabia on behalf of both empires). However, in terms for the political structure within Arabia during the beginning of Islam, there was no central governance structure on the Peninsula, and instead, territories within Arabia were controlled by different tribes. Economically, Arabia (and the city of Mecca) were important trade routes and locations for those looking to exchange goods with one another. Arabia offered an ideal location for those who had economic dealings between the different political empires (Cleveland & Bunton). In fact, the city of Mecca, where Muhammad was born and where Islam first began, was a very importance economic hub where people would not only trade, but also where “Meccan merchants had accumulated sufficient capital to organize their own caravans and to provide payments to an extensive network of tribes in exchange for pledges to allow the caravans to pass in peace” (Cleveland & Bunton, 8).
In terms of religion in Arabia before the rise of Islam, there was no singular dominant faith in the region. There were clearly examples of monotheistic faiths in the region (such as Judaism and Christianity), but where were many who practiced different types of polytheism. This fact becomes important, particularly in the context of early Islam, as Muhammad, in many of this teachings, spoke about the importance of monotheism in Islam.
The Birth Muhammad the Rise of Islam
Muhammad was born in Mecca in the year 570ace. To Muslims, Muhammad was the last prophet in a line of messengers sent by God. However, to Muslims, Muhammad was not believed to had these divine revelations until he was 40 years of ago. Muhammad, who would often leave the city and go to the nearby mountains (Mount Hira) to meditate. Muslims believe that it was one of those nights that Muhammad first received messages from the angel Gabriel. This night, the first night of the divine connection, and the birth of Islam, is often referred to as the Night of Power.
From this point on, the spread of Islam was actually quite slow. Muhammad was careful in who he trusted with what took place, in part because of the fear of retribution that those in society could have done to him. However, after receiving a message to make the revelations public, he began spreading the messages to all in Mecca. As Cleveland & Bunton explain
“Muhammad’s prophethood can be divided into two phases, the period at Mecca (610-622) and the years in Medina” (622-632)” (10). The Meccan verses are much more general and focus on foundational aspects of the faith (such as notions of monotheism, rights, etc…), whereas the Medina verses are more much centered on the daily aspects of life and behavior of those in that community during that time.
In terms of the spread of Islam, while there were some that were quite adaptive to his messages (and were converting to Islam), there were many who not only converted, but viewed Muhammad and the rise of Islam as a real threat to their religions, as well as their economic stability. For example, Muhammad not only spoke about monotheism (and was thus critical of polytheism), but since Mecca (and more specifically, the Kaaba) was a pilgrimage site for those to bring their gods into the site, the Meccans were also concerned that by criticizing the polytheists, that they would also be hurt economically, if other tribes changed their mind and were now hesitant to bring their gods to the Kaaba.
Islam and The Migration to Medina
In 622, Muhammad was asked by warring tribes to come to Mecca and help serve as a political leader and mediator. Given the tension and conditions facing him and his followers in Mecca, they left the city and went to Yathrib or Medina and settled there. Muhammad spent most of the rest of his life in Medina serving as a political and spiritual leader. It was here that he helped build a state, operating as a military leader, but also offering guidance and advice on daily affairs. During this time in Medina, the number of Muslims grew greatly compared to the early years of Islam in Mecca. While Medina was now an established city for Muslims, there was a goal of returning back to control Mecca.It was in 632 that Muhammad, along with an army of over 10,000 people back into Mecca, and captured the city.
The Spread of Islam after Muhammad
Following the death of Muhammad, the new leader of most of the Muslims (there were some Muslims who disagreed with who should be the new leader), Abu Bakr, and then Umar, Uthman, and Ali began thinking about the role of Islam and the Muslim community, particularly in the context of regional and international relations. The second caliph or leader after Muhammad, Umar, began leading attacks on areas controlled or influenced by the Byzantine and Sasanian empire. These actions in the 630s led to the quick spread of Islam. For example, “In 637, the Arab forces defeated the imperial Sasanian army at the battle of Qadisiyya, an encounter that was quickly followed by the capture of Ctesiphon and the beginning of the difficult Arab campaign across the Iranian plateau toward the Indian subcontinent” (Cleveland & Bunton, 13). Scholars go no to point out that the Sasanian empire was not the only force in which the Muslims had military victory against: “Success against Byzantinum was equally swift. The Arabs captured Damascus in 635, and in 641 they occupied parts of the rich agricultural province of Egypt. By 670 the western campaign against Byzantine and Berber resistance had reached present-day Tunisia, and in 680 the daring Arab commander Uqba ibn Nafi led a small force from Tunisia through Algeria and Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean” (13). Then, shortly after, the Arab forces went into Spain in the 700s. The Muslims from Arabia had at the time influence as far east as India, and went as far as parts of France (and then were stopped by Charles Martel in 732) (Cleveland & Bunton).
Thus, in the centuries following these initial events, the spread of Islam will continue with the rise of the Ottoman Empire (which we will discuss in another post). However, it is important to understand the history behind the rise of Islam in the early years of the faith. This article lays out the brief history of Islam, and the spread of Islam in Arabia, eastward towards Iran, India, etc…, and westward into North Africa and western Europe.
Cleveland & Bunton (2009). A History of the Modern Middle East, Fourth edition. Boulder Colorado. Westview Press.