The Origins of Islam
Islam was a religion founded in the 7th Century AD by Muhammad, an Arabian merchant from the city of Mecca. In the centuries leading up to the birth of Muhammad, Christianity had become the dominant faith of the Mediterranean and it’s message was quickly spreading to other regions of the world via the major trade routes of the era. Mecca was a city along these trade routes, and may have played a role in the flow of goods and ideas between the trade systems of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean*. It should therefore come as no surprise that Islam would be heavily influenced by the traditions of Christianity and Judaism. For example, Muhammad claimed that he was visited by an invisible angel called Gabriel, who passed on messages to him from God, the same character appears in the stories of Christians and Jews. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are all considered important prophets in Islam, Muslims even claim that Abraham visited Mecca and established the Kaaba there, although there is no mention of this event in Christian and Judaic sources.
Islam during the Life of Muhammad
In 613 AD, Muhammad began declaring that he was receiving messages from God, and that he was a prophet in the same line of prophets as Jesus and Moses. At first the Pagan Arabs were tolerant and even curious about this new “prophet”, they had a genuine interest in the monotheistic beliefs of the Jews and Christians and were willing to make room for another religious belief system in their society. It was not until Muhammad began insulting the traditional Pagan deities and insisting that the Pagan Arabs and their ancestors will burn in hell for eternity for worshiping false gods that they began to regard Muhammad and his followers with disdain. (Ibn Ishaq pg. 167) The Pagan Arabs placed a trade embargo on them, ridiculed Muhammad in public, and some of the slaves that had begun to follow Muhammad were beaten by their Pagan masters. To escape this persecution, Muhammad and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, where they were welcomed by the local Pagan and Jewish tribes there.
From his new base in Medina, Muhammad sent his followers out to raid the merchant caravans of the Pagan Arabs. In response, the Pagans began guarding their caravans with armed soldiers. In 624 AD the Muslims attacked and defeated a heavily guarded merchant caravan and took many of the pagans captive, this incident is known as the Battle of Badr and was the first major battle in the Muslim conquest of Arabia. (See map 1 – 624 AD).
Over the next few years Muhammad expanded his territorial control over the area to the north of Medina and waged war with a number of both Pagan and Jewish Arab tribes. (See map 2 – 628 AD) Muhammad promised his followers eternal paradise in the afterlife if they fought for his cause.(Quran 4:74) As Muhammad’s power and influence grew, relations with the three Jewish tribes of Medina began to deteriorate, Muhammad solved this by expelling the first two tribes from Medina (the Banu Qaynuqa in 624 AD and the Banu Nadir in 625 AD) and then massacring the final tribe (the Banu Qurayza in 627 AD). In 630 AD, Muhammad conquered his home town of Mecca and over the next two years he sent his armies all over Western Arabia to conquer the remaining Pagan tribes. Muhammad demolished the Pagan temples of his defeated enemies (Sahih Bukhari Book 59, #641) and refused to accept their surrender until they agreed to convert to his new religion. (Husayn, pg. 281) (see map 3 – 632 AD) For a more detailed interactive map of Muhammad’s conquest of Arabia click here.
The Rashidun Caliphate
Muhammad died in 632 AD**. After his death, the Muslims were led by a series of Caliphs (Islamic leaders) know as the Rashidun (rightly guided) Caliphs. These men were the closest of Muhammad’s companions. The policy of the Rashidun Caliphs was to continue Muhammad’s aggressive territorial expansion. The first of these companions to be appointed Caliph was Abu Bakr, he was one of Muhammad’s father in laws and had been the first man after Muhammad to convert to Islam. Abu Bakr’s first task was to suppress a rebellion in Arabia that had been started by various Arab tribes that had renounced their conversion to Islam after the death of Muhammad, the suppression of these rebellions are known as the Wars of Apostasy. Once these wars were completed, Abu-Bakr began the invasion of the two major super powers of the region, the Byzantine Empire of the Mediterranean, and the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Both of these empires were in a weak state having been in almost continuous war with each other for an entire century and were unable to mount much effective resistance.
Abd al-Malik was the first Arab Caliph to finally mint recognizable Islamic coins. This coin from 698 AD removes the Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the human imagery (forbidden in Orthodox Islam) and replaces them with an actual sura from the Quran (112).
However Abu Bakr died in 634 AD, and leadership passed to the next Caliph: Umar, another early convert to Islam who had spent 17 years at Muhammad’s side. During the Caliphate of Umar, Muslim armies conquered almost the entire Middle East, including the Levant, Egypt, and much of Persia, the rest of Persia was conquered under the reigns of the two subsequent Rashidun Caliphs (Uttman & Ali).(see map 4 – 661 AD)
One of the strangest peculiarities in the traditional account of the Rise of Islam is that none of the so-called “Rashidun” (rightly-guided) Caliphs ever mentioned the name of Muhammad or anything to do with Islam on any of their inscriptions or coinage. This has led scholars to suggest that the first Arab Caliphs were not nearly as pious as later Islamic historians made them out to be. Some scholars go so far as to suggest that much of Islamic belief may have been constructed in later periods. Another plausible explanation for the lack of Islamic messages in the inscriptions and coinage was that it was an attempt by the early Islamic rulers to preserve political and economic stability in the conquered territories.
The Rashidun Caliphate came to an end in a civil war, from 661 AD a new dynasty emerged from this civil war known as the Umayyad Caliphate. None of these men had ever been close companions of Muhammad.
The Conquest of the Maghreb
It was the most impotant event during the rise of Islam. During the Umayyad Caliphate, the pace of conquests began to slow down. When the Muslim armies reached the Maghreb, what Arabs call Northwest Africa, they were met with stiff resistance. At this time, control of Northwest Africa was divided amongst the Byzantines, who controlled the coastal area around the city of Carthage, and the native Berber peoples, who controlled the interior and the coastal area of Morocco. (See map 5 – 670 AD) The City of Carthage fell quite easily to the Muslims, who then moved on to wage war against the Berbers. Berber resistance to the Muslim conquest focused around a Berber Queen named Kahina, she led the Berbers in a number of successful battles against the Muslims. In the meantime, the Byzantine Emperor Leontius sent his navy to recapture Carthage from the Muslims in a stunning surprise attack. The Muslims were forced to retreat to Kairouan and regroup, in 698 AD they besieged Carthage for a second time and captured the city. As punishment for the city’s stiff resistance, the Muslims destroyed Carthage for the second time in it’s history, just as the Romans had done in 146 BC. With Carthage finally destroyed, the Muslims were able to turn their attention back to the Berber resistance, in 702 AD, the Muslims defeated Kahina once and for all at the Battle of Tabarka. (See map 6 – 710 AD)
The Invasion of Europe
Once all of North Africa was under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate, the Muslim Arabs wasted no time in crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and invading Europe. Visigothic Spain was easily overrun in just a few years, but the Arabs were stopped by the Franks at the battle of Tours in 733 AD. Thus most of Europe was saved from Muslim rule and would to this day remain Christian. (See map 7 – 733 AD)
Nevertheless, the expansion of Islam was astounding. In just 100 years since Muhammad first claimed prophethood, Islam had by force of arms, conquered all of Arabia and then expanded out and conquered as far west as Spain and as far east as Afghanistan. The Islamic Caliphate had become the largest empire the world had yet known, controlling some of the most important centers of civilization. Of the 5 Christian Patriarchates (the 5 great urban centers of Christianity in the 6th-7th centuries AD), 3 of them now fell under Islamic rule (Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch), with only Rome and Constantinople still under Christian rule. From this point on, much of Mediterranean history would be characterized by the struggles between the Christian and Islamic faiths, the Christians holding the north side of the Mediterranean and the Muslims the south side. The battlegrounds were to be Spain, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and the islands caught in the middle.
Comparing the Rise of Islam to the Rise of Christianity
It is tempting to compare the astounding spread of Christianity with that of Islam. Both faiths began as the teachings of a single man and both witnessed exponential, almost miraculous growth in just a few centuries. However the method by which the two faiths spread could not have been more different. For the first three centuries AD, Christianity had spread by peaceful conversion. Then once it became adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, Christians had sufficient power to dominate, intimidate, and supress other religions. The followers of Islam on the other hand used military force from the very beginning of their history, even during the life of Muhammad himself. Towns were brought under Islamic rule by conquest, and their main churches and temples were usually converted to mosques. Christians and Jews were treated a little fairer than followers of other religions as they were considered Abrahamic Faiths and would be tolerated as long as they paid the Jizya, a special tax that Jews and Christians had to pay the Islamic state in order to practice their religion. In the first few centuries of Islamic rule, there is no evidence of forced conversion of Christians or Jews, nevertheless there were considerable economic and social pressures to convert to the ruling religion.