Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 6: The Rise of Islam and the Arab Conquests

Copyright ©2010, 2011by T. Pavlidis

The Origins of Islam

The year 622CE is used by Muslims as the start of their chronology and it marks the migration (Hijra in Arabic) of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Muhammad had been preaching in Mecca for about thirteen years but the Meccans were not responsive to his teaching. In contrast, the inhabitants of Medina welcome him and the town became the center of the Muslim faith and community [BL95, pp. 52-53]. Muhammad was not only a religious leader but also a temporal leader and he soon became involved in warfare with the pagan rulers of Mecca. The Muslims won and abolished the Mecca idols while keeping the city as well as the old shrine, Kaaba, as center of Islamic worship. (It is an interesting coincidence that in the Christian world pagan temples were converted to churches.) By the time of Muhammad's death (632CE) the Muslims had conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula.

The history of Islam has several parallels with the history of Judaism where Moses was both a prophet and the leader of his people, even though Moses did not live long enough to enter the promised land. Like Moses, Muhammad made no claim to divinity and he had a wife. In contrast, Christians believe that Jesus was divine and he never held temporal authority. The divinity of Jesus and the related dogma of Trinity has been at the root of the many schisms in Christianity as we saw in Chapter 5. Islam is also similar to Judaism in two other respects. It requires circumcision of the male followers and it imposes dietary restrictions that include the prohibition of eating pork. While theological issues are beyond the scope of this writing we cannot help but observed that Islam and Judaism are much closer to each other than either of them is to Christianity.

There are two questions about Islam that we need to answer. First, why it was successful in the Arabian peninsula and second, why it spread so quickly after its founding.

Gibbon [EG] devotes one chapter (L, vol. 5, pp. 207-292] to the genesis of Islam and he depicts the Arabian peninsula as a barbaric and desolate land. He quotes Pliny as saying that "the Arabian tribes are equally addicted to theft and merchandise; the caravans that traverse the desert are ransomed or pillaged" [ibid, p. 218]. Gibbon claims that an Arab translation of the Jewish Bible existed before Muhammad's time and that the Arabs were familiar with Christianity for two reasons. Some of the persecuted Christian "heretics" would find refuge in the Arabian peninsula and there was warfare between the Arabs and the Christian princes of Ethiopia who ruled over Yemen [ibid, pp. 228-229].

Gibbon [ibid, pp. 290-91] points out the permanency of Islam, a religion that has not changed significantly since its inception in contrast to the momentous changes in Christianity. He does not state a reason, but one explanation is that the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, is believed by Muslims to be a direct dictation of God to the Prophet and copies from the time of the founding of the religion exist. Therefore there is less room for theological debates than in either Judaism or Christianity where the respective sacred texts were codifies several centuries after the founding of each religion. Gibbon adds that Muhammad "breathed among the faithful a spirit of charity and friendship; recommended the practice of social virtues; and checked ... the thirst of revenge, and the oppression of widows and orphans."

Wright [Wr09, pp. 327-405] agrees with Gibbon and he also suggests that Islam succeeded because it contributed to social improvement in the Arabian peninsula. For example, because the emphasis in a family was to have sons, newborn girls sometimes would be buried alive [ibid, p. 334]. "Some scholars believe robbery wasn't a crime in the Arabia of Muhammad's day" [ibid, p. 359]. Today some Muslims explain certain harsh (from the modern viewpoint) punishments in the Quran as being an improvement over what prevailed in Arabia before Islam. Similar explanation are offered by Jews about the "eye for an eye", etc directives in the Jewish Bible. Islam carried not only a theological message, but also a message of social justice, and of humanitarianism [ibid]. Wright also claims that in the beginning of Islam there was an alliance with Jews and that "the conquest of Jerusalem was the work ... of a Jewish-Muslim alliance" [ibid, p. 371]. According to Wright the break between the two religions occurred after that conquest. Finally, he points out that the Quran contains passages that can be used to justify "holy war" as well as passages that point to Islam as a religion of peace.

A Brief Overview of Islam

"Islam is both a religion and a complete way of life"1 so the concept of separation of religion and state (usually called separation of church and state) does not exist. We should keep in mind that at the time of the founding of Islam (and for over 1000 years afterwards) that concept did not exist amongst Christians either. In countries like Greece and Spain close links between religion (Christian) and state persisted well into late 20th century.

The main source of Islam is the Quran, a direct dictation from God (Allah) to the Prophet. It is divided into 114 chapters (surahs)2. In addition there are:

  • The Sunnah (Traditions) based on the example of the Prophet that cover ethical and spiritual issues as well as social legislation.
  • The Hadith, report of sayings attributed to the Prophet.
  • The Ijma, an 8th century legal standarization.
  • The Ijtihad (Endeavor) methods to decide on new issues on the basis of the Quran and the Hadith.

Shariah is a system of values that in an Islamic state have the force of law. For a link to the description of Shariah by a Muslim writer see Note 3 below.

Islam emphasizes strict monotheism and the belief that everything depends on the will of Allah. (The latter emphasis may be a reflection of the pagan Arab beliefs on fate.) There is a belief in the last day of Judgement and that repentance is accepted. There is great emphasis on social issues and in particular:

  • Man needs to free himself of narrowness of mind and smallness of heart.
  • One must try to aleviate suffering and help the needy. Spending on others will be rewarded by Allah.
  • There is emphasis on equality amongst the "children of Adam" and while slavery was not abolished (that would have been too drastic a step for the times), rights for the slaves were established.
  • "Blood feuds" (preveland in Arabia) were forbidden.
  • Family is valued and celibacy is discouraged.

The Five Pillars of Islam are4:

  • Profession of Faith.
  • Prayer (five times a day).
  • Zakat (purification) that is actually a contribution for the needy.
  • Fast (during the month of Ramadan).
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca (for those who can afford it).

Encyclopedia Britannica devotes over 100 page to Islam and related topics (see Note 5 below). We will return to religious issues when we discuss the various sects of Islam.

The Beginning of the Caliphate - Conquest of Persia, Syria, and Egypt

Upon Muhammad's death his followers chose Abu Bakr as their leader with the title of caliph. The Arabic word caliph combines the meanings of successor and deputy and, for future holders of the title, it could mean both successor of the Prophet and deputy of God [BL95, p. 54]. Abu Bakr lived for only two years and he was succeeded by Omar (or Umar) (634-644) and then by Othman (or Uthman) (644-656). All three had been companions of Muhammad and Gibbon [EG, Chapter LI, vol. 5, pp. 295-296] comments on their frugality and modesty. The fourth caliph was Ali (656-661) was the son-in-law of Muhammad. The first four caliphs are known as the Rashidun, or the righteous ones. In the less than 30 years span of their rule Islam spread throughout the lands of the Persian empire, Syria, north Africa, including Egypt and all the lands in between. This is shown in the map below.

Figure 1: Map of the greatest extend of the Arab Rashidun empire (by Mohammad Adil).

Click on the map for a larger version and full credits.

What are the reasons for such a success? Clearly, the Arabs had an enthusiastic army but that may not have been enough. One factor was that the Roman and Persian empires had exhausted themselves in a 30 years mutually destructive warfare (see Chapter 4) so there was a power vacuum in what we call today Middle East. We should point out that the conquest may have been facilitated by the pre-existing semi-independent Arab states in the region. The Ghassanid confederation held sway in southern Syria and in today's Jordan and were allies of the Romans. Greek and Syrian texts mention their leaders as "our most pious and Christ-loving kings" [CM02, pp. 123-124]. The chief of Ghassan was given high honors as well as weapons by the Roman emperor Justinian the Great. The Ghassanids had waged successful warfare against Hira, a state of the Arab confederation of the Lakhmids, who although Christian, were allied with the Persian empire [BL95, p. 44, MW96, p. 52]. Proxy wars between the Romans and the Persians took also place over Yemen [MW96, p. 53]. It was not too hard for these states to turn against their former overlords when inspired by the new religion. Whittow observes that the "Ghassanids had been as effective ... against the Persians as any other Roman troops" [ibid, p. 87].

Another factor for the Arab successes is that Arab rulers were more liberal in matters of religion than the Roman or Persian rulers. This may surprise modern readers who are accustomed from the news media to view Muslim countries as been too strict in terms of religion. This view ignores the fact that Christian states in the seventh century (and a long time thereafter) were far stricter than they are today. Today in most of the Western world we have separation of church and state but, as we pointed out in the previous section, that is only a recent development. A better point of reference is the decree of Theodosius (Chapter 4) that required the subjects of the empire not only to be Christian but also to adhere to particular version of Christianity. Heretics were not tolerated. The same was true with Zoroastrianism in Persia. It did not tolerate heretics either.

In contrast, Arab rulers did not require their subjects to be Muslims, a far more liberal policy than the Roman or Persian religious policies. This was crucial for the Monophysite Christians of Egypt. Under Roman (Byzantine) rule they were persecuted. Under Muslim Arab rule they were free to practice their version of Christianity. Of course, there were inducements for conversion, but only voluntarily. Bernard Lewis [BL95, pp. 55-57] provides a concise review of the subject that included a lower tax (or no tax) on Muslims than on non-believers. He states that "the .. Christian Aramaic-speaking people of the Fertile Crescent, and the Coptic-speaking Christian people of Egypt ... found their new masters less demanding, more tolerant, and ... more welcoming than the old." Gibbon provides an extensive account that includes such vignettes as a letter from a governor of Africa to the caliph that states "that the tribute of the infidels was abolished by their conversion" [EG, Chapter LI, vol. 5, pp.380-381].

Most of Persia fell to an Arab army led by Chaled, the "Sword of God" in 636 and Giddon states that "The naked robbers of the desert were suddenly enriched beyond the measure of their hope or knowledge" [ibid, p. 302]. After Persia Chaled completed the conquest of Syria with Jerusalem falling in 638. These conquests were achieved after several bloody battles although some towns surrendered to the Arab invaders. Gibbon [ibid, pp. 309-310] quotes the instructions of Abu Bakr to the army attacking Syria: "...When you fight the battles of the Lord, acquit yourselves like men, without turning your backs; but let not your victory be stained with the blood of women or children. Destroy no palm-trees, nor burn any field of corn. ... As you go on, you will find some religious persons who live retired in monasteries, ... let them alone and neither kill them nor destroy their monasteries: and you will find another sort of people, ... who have shaven crowns; be sure to cleave their skulls, and give them no quarter till they either turn Muhammadans or pay tribute." The people with shaven crowns were ordained Christian priests. In the seventh century monks did not have to be ordained. Gibbon also reports a case where a Syrian town, Bosra, was betrayed to the Arabs by its governor Romanus who then converted to Islam [ibid, pp. 311-312].

The story was quite different in Egypt where the Monophysite Coptic Christians under the leadership of Mokawkas signed a treaty with the Arabs. His message to the Arabs was "... we are resolved to live and die in the profession of the gospel and unity of Christ. It is impossible for us to embrace the revelations of your prophet; but we are desirous of peace, and cheerfully submit to pay tribute and obedience to his temporal successors" [ibid, pp. 341-342]. The emphasis on the words "unity of Christ" has been added. This was the monophysite doctrine. However, the Byzantine armies were able to put significant resistance in Alexandria and it took four years for the Arabs to take the city that fell in October of 641. An often told story is that the conquerors burn the famous Alexandria library. However Gibbon doubts the story and provides several reasons why it is suspect. His commentator (Oliphant Smeaton) suggests that the Muslims had destroyed books of the Zoroastrians in Persia and that story was transferred to Alexandria [ibid, pp. 346-348].

Conquest of Norh Africa and Spain - Advance into France, and Defeat of the Arabs

The Arab advance to the rest of north Africa was resisted by Byzantine and Gothic troops (the latter came from Spain) but not for long. The fall of Carthage to the Arabs in 698CE it was not only the end of a famous city (today it is only an archeological site) but also the end of Roman and Greek influence in North Africa. Interestingly, North Africa is the only part of the Roman Empire where no traces of Christianity were left after the Arab conquest. The region also never returned to the afluence that it had in ancient times.

In 709 a Goth chieftain (Julian) offered to join the Muslims to invade Spain. In the month of Ramadan in the 91st year of Hijra (713CE) a small Arab force crossed the straights of Gibraltar. The following spring 5,000 Arabs under the command of Tarik invaded Spain. Incidentally the name Gibraltar is corruption of Gebel Al Tarik, or mountain of Tarik. The Goth rules of Spain had grown soft and Christian defections helped the Arabs to complete the conquest of the country. In 716 Cordoba became the capital of Muslim Spain. At the end of the first century of Hijra (i.e. 722CE) the Arab Caliphate was the most potent empire in the world ruling lands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea.

The Arabs did not stop in Spain and by 731 they had conquered the south of France. "A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; ... Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed." [EG, Chap. LII, vol. 5, pp. 398-399]. What stopped the Arab advance?

On October 10, 732, in the Battle of Poitiers (Tours), the Frankish forces under Charles Martel (the hammer) defeated the Muslim forces under Abdul Rahman. Abdul Rahman was killed and during the ensuing night "the various tribes of Yemen and Damascus, of Africa and Spain, were provoked to turn their arms against each other" [ibid, p. 400]. Soon, Charles Martel forced the Arabs out of France, beyond the Pyrenees. Gibbon and several other historians think that the battle was decisive in stopping the Arab advance into Europe.


The web site is addressed mainly to Muslims but it also contains material addressed to those who want to ask questions about Islam.

  1. Quotation from
  2. An online translation of the Quran can be found in
  3. Khurram Murad Shariah: The Way of Justice
  5. Articles on Islam and related topics, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 19 (pp. 911-1025), Fifteenth Edition, 1982.

First Posted: January 29, 2010. Latest Revision: October 16, 2011.

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