Arabia in the seventh century AD was a harsh place to live, with no established state and no rule of law, outside the governance of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires to the north. It was home to a tribal society, full of internecine conflict, with a polytheistic religion followed in the settled areas, and with Mecca serving as a center of one of these pagan cults.
Despite its obvious later importance, the history of Mecca as an important early center may have been played up somewhat in order to increase its significance, as some scholars think that it was a relatively minor settlement prior to the advent of the Islamic empire.
Once Muhammad began his military campaign, Islam spread swiftly to cover the western half of Arabia, and the very east of Arabia (the eastern half of the modern United Arab Emirates and Oman plus Bahrain). From there, after his lifetime, it spread further to encompass huge areas of the world thanks to military campaigns and the winning of voluntary converts.
The Hijrah (Islamic Historical) Era AD 622 - 632
Muhammad is believed to have been born in Mecca around 570, a member of one of the prominent tribes there, but not a member of the ruling elite itself. The exact location of his birth is unknown and no marker or memorial exists, primarily so that the attention of the faithful is not drawn away from the worship of God. Muhammad was an orphan by the age of six.
Taken in by other members of his clan, he became a successful, married trader, reaching the upper echelons of society. According to tradition, he found this lifestyle to be unsatisfactory and, at the age of forty, he underwent a dramatic revelation that changed his worldview.
He began preaching this revelation in Mecca and, despite opposition by the ruling Quraysh and later suggestions that he was operating purely on a political basis, he won converts. His first wife, Kadijha, a trader who was older than Muhammad, could be claimed as the first Muslim, as she believed his revelations even before he did.
Failing to make headway with his ideas in Mecca, Muhammad fled the city with his converts, heading for the oasis settlement of Yathrib (later known as Medina), and narrowly avoiding an assassination attempt in the process.
The band that he took with him, and the converts he made at Medina, went beyond kinship or tribal allegiances and was instead based on ideology, something that was entirely new in Arabia. The year was AD 622, and the event was the Hijrah (or Hijra), the 'cutting off from the past'. A new age had begun in Arabia.
Hijrah began on 16 July 622. Died 7 June in Medina
The first stage of the conflict begins when Muhammad decides to attack a trade caravan belonging to the Quraysh Meccans, who are very powerful and are determined to destroy these new heretics, as they see them. They know of Muhammad's plan and reroute the caravan, sending a small force of about 900 men in its place. This outnumbers the Muslims, but when the two forces meet at Badr, it is the smaller side that wins. The victory is an important justification of Muhammad's new ideology.
Some of the pagan tribes and the Jewish tribes that have long been based at Medina have grown resentful of Muhammad's growing power and his determination to impose his Constitution of Medina upon them. They are also concerned with Muslim attempts to destroy Meccan trade, which forms a major source of income for many tribes, perhaps especially the Jewish ones.
Now the Banu Qaynuqa, one of the three main Jewish tribes at Medina, are banished from Medina, allegedly for conspiring with Muhammad's enemies at Mecca. The fact that they are banished rather than executed suggests that Muhammad still hopes for a reconciliation. Soon afterward, Mecca sends a much greater force to avenge the defeat of 624. The result of the Battle of Uhud is a draw.
The Meccans return with an army of 10,000 warriors to face Muhammad's 3,000. There is no question of giving the vast Meccan force battle, so Muhammad retreats into Medina to offer a siege, known as the Battle of the Trench, after the well-dug defensive work in front of Medina.
The siege collapses within a couple of months due to a lack of supplies and equipment, but just after the Meccan forces leave, one of the remaining Jewish tribes is accused of holding negotiations with them. Muhammad, now the powerful if the modest ruler of Medina, declines to be involved in what happens next.
The Jewish tribe is besieged in their southern Medina fort for twenty-five days and when they surrender, the men are massacred and their women and children sold into slavery. The event is not greatly shocking to the people of Arabia at the time (and has been alleged to have been embellished by the surviving descendants of the tribes), but it lays the seeds for later Jewish-Arabic conflict and hatred.
An important moment is marked when Muhammad wins unstated but unambiguous recognition from the Quraysh that he and they are equals. He announces that he is going on Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, which must be undertaken without weapons. He and his followers are stopped by Quraysh cavalry about thirteen kilometers (eight miles) from Mecca.
There, through negotiation with the Quraysh, Muhammed wins acknowledgment that he can return the following year providing he gives up raiding Meccan trade caravans and drops his title (these terms supply the so-called Treaty of Hudaibiya).
He views this apparent climb-down as a worthy price to pay for peace today and the chance of making fresh converts and alliances against the Quraysh tomorrow. Following the treaty, he attacks the Jewish Khaybar oasis in the Battle of Khaybar, possibly because the Banu Nadir are there, busy inciting hostilities against him.
Muhammad leads an expeditionary force to the island of Bahrain, where he fights no battles and meets no enemies. Nevertheless, the people of the island are won as converts. In the same year, the Quraysh break the Treaty of Hudaibiya by attacking one of Muhammad's tribal allies.
Muhammad is able to quickly put together a huge army that marches on Mecca. The Quraysh, suddenly heavily outnumbered, are in no position to do anything but surrender, their power broken. Muhammad forgives them, declaring an amnesty for all but ten individuals (some of whom are also later pardoned).
Most of the inhabitants of Mecca convert to Islam voluntarily, without it being imposed, and the pagan idols in and around the Kaaba are destroyed. With this peaceful 'conquest' the Arab tribes become followers in droves. Muhammad returns to Medina and, within a year, he is master of all of Arabia.
Rightly Guided Caliphs / Rashidun Caliphate AD 632 - 661
The Rightly Guided Caliphs were Muhammad's companions, or 'sahaba', although the concept was only established by the later Abbasids. The Islamic caliphate was created based on the idea that the caliph was the direct successor to Muhammad's political authority, and each caliph was chosen either by his predecessor before death or by a council.
Upon the death of Muhammad, it was Abu Bakr who calmed his distraught converts. Soon afterward, a gathering at Medina of the most important figures in early Islam selected Abu Bakr, Muhammad's close companion, as his successor. The city itself was selected as the growing empire's first capital. Another of the companions was Amr Ibn Al-Aas, the military commander who was responsible for the conquest of Egypt.
Assumed the title Khalifah, 'successor' to the Prophet.
Abu Bakr's accession triggers the Ridda Wars, or Wars of Apostasy, when several Arabic tribes, including Christian Arabs in Jordan, and other Arabs in Arabia, Oman, and Yemen, refuse to fully observe strict Muslim practices.
Abu Bakr's campaigning defeats all of them, establishing Islamic rule over all of Arabia, including tribes such as the Kedarites. Following this, he sends armies towards Byzantine Syria and Sassanid Iraq.
Umar ibn al-Khattab / Umar I the Great Killed by a slave.
It is under the leadership of Umar that Islam begins its rapid expansion outside Arabia. Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius is defeated, and Palestine and Phoenicia are conquered in 636 and 637 respectively.
Mesopotamia is conquered from the Persians in 637, and Jerusalem falls in 638. Roman Syria, Egypt, and Libya are taken in 638-640, and the Persians themselves are defeated in 642. Following Umar's murder, a council of electors nominates Uthman as his successor.
Uthman ibn Affan Of the Umayyad Clan.
Expansion continues under Uthman. The Georgian kingdom of Iberia is taken in 645, inroads are made in Tunisia from 647, and Persia is fully overrun by 651, along with Khorasan, where an Islamic emirate is formed to govern this rather wild region.
Former Kushanshah territory in what later becomes Afghanistan is taken in 652 but attempted invasions of the kingdom of Dongola and the island of Sicily are repulsed in the same year. However, Uthman's style of leadership is perceived by some as being too much like that of a king, and he is murdered. Ali takes command, although he is not fully accepted by the governors of Egypt. The growing empire begins to threaten Armenia. Aided by the Byzantines,
Armenia defends itself, but the Arab campaign continues northwards into the Caucuses under General Salman. He concentrates on the towns and settlements of the western coast of the Caspian Sea and on defeating the Khazars. A description of this campaign is based on a manuscript by Ahmed-bin-Azami, and it mentions that '...Salman reached the Khazar town of Burger...
He continued and finally reached Bilkhar, which was not a Khazar possession, and camped with his army near that town, on rich meadows intersected by a large river'.
This is why several historians connect the town with the proto-Bulgarians. The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan also confirms this connection, as he mentions that during his trip to the Volga Bulgars in 922 he sees a group of 5,000 Barandzhars (Jalandhar) who had migrated a long time ago to Volga Bulgaria. He also encounters a group of people who may tentatively be identified with the Venedi.
Ali ibn Abi Talib Son-in-law & cousin of Muhammad. Assassinated
The feature is the second historical follower of Islam. Some Muslims see him as one of several possible leaders while others believe him to be divine. The Sunni/Shia split between Islam is created by this rule, with Sunni Muslims counting Abu Bakr as the first legitimate Caliph, while the Shi'a count Ali as the first truly legitimate Caliph. For two decades around these years, the First Islamic Civil War rages in Arabia, and Ali is assassinated in 661. Hasan is appointed as his successor.
Hasan ibn Ali Son. Forced to resign.
Hasan, regarded as a righteous ruler by Sunni Muslims, is recognized by only half the Islamic empire. He is challenged and ultimately defeated by Mu'awiya, the Umayyad governor of Syria.
Umayyad / Omayyad Caliphate AD 661 - 749
The governor of Islamic Syria, Mu'awiya, was one of the main challengers against Hasan ibn Ali during the First Islamic Civil War. He claimed descent from an ancestor who was common to both him and the Prophet Muhammad, although their clans within the encompassing Quraish tribe were different. After he had overcome Ali and the other claimants he founded the Umayyad dynasty, named after his great-grandfather, Umayya ibn Abd Shams, and made the position of caliph a hereditary one.
The capital was established at Damascus just over a decade after the dynasty was founded. The rival Hashemite clan of the Quraish tribe was granted the emirate of Mecca in the tenth century.
Abbasid Caliphate AD 750 - 1258
The Abbasids were the second of the two great Sunni dynasties that ruled the Islamic empire. The Abbasid caliphs officially based their claim to the caliphate on their descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (AD 566-652), one of the youngest (non-ruling) uncles of the prophet Muhammad, by virtue of which descent they regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of the prophet as opposed to the Umayyads. The latter were descended from Umayya and were a separate clan from that of Muhammad's in the Quraish tribe.
Following the overthrow and massacre of the Umayyads, the Abbasids never managed to assert their authority in Islamic Iberia, but they did install loyal governors in Egypt and Syria. They also put themselves forward as representatives of the Hashemites, the clan which had previously lost out in the rivalry with the Umayyads for the caliphate.
The capital of the Abbasid caliphate was in Baghdad, and the equality of all Moslems was established at the same time as they took control. Despite its bright beginning, the dynasty slowly became eclipsed by the rise to power of the Turkish army that it had itself created, the Mamelukes.
To begin to understand the rich history of Islam, let’s start with the historical context and events that led to Islam’s spread. For example, Islam initially spread through the military conquests of Arab Muslims, which happened over a very short period of time soon after the beginning of Islam.
However, only a small fraction of the people who came under Arab Muslim control immediately adopted Islam. It wasn’t until centuries later, at the end of the eleventh century, that Muslims made up the majority of subjects of the Islamic empires.
The spread of Islam through merchants, missionaries, and pilgrims was very different in nature. These kinds of exchanges affected native populations slowly and led to more conversion to Islam. As Islamic ideas traveled along various trade and pilgrimage routes, they mingled with local cultures and transformed into new versions and interpretations of the religion.
Another important thing to note is that not all military expansion was Arab and Muslim. Early on in Islamic history, under the Rashidun caliphate—the reign of the first four caliphs, or successors, from 632 to 661 CE—and the Umayyad caliphate, Arab Muslim forces expanded quickly. With the Abbasids, more non-Arabs and non-Muslims were involved in the government administration.
Later on, as the Abbasid caliphate declined, there were many fragmented political entities, some of which were led by non-Arab Muslims. These entities continued to evolve in their own ways, adopting and putting forth different interpretations of Islam as they sought to consolidate their power in different regions.
The first Arab Muslim empire
During the seventh century, after subduing rebellions in the Arabian peninsula, Arab Muslim armies began to swiftly conquer territory in the neighboring Byzantine and Sasanian empires and beyond.
Within roughly two decades, they created a massive Arab Muslim empire spanning three continents. The Arab Muslim rulers were not purely motivated by religion, nor was their success attributed to the power of Islam alone, though religion certainly played a part. Non-Muslim subjects under Arab Muslim rule were not especially opposed to their new rulers.
A long period of instability and dissatisfaction had left them ambivalent toward their previous rulers. Like all other empires, the first Arab Muslim empires were built within the context of the political realities of their neighboring societies.
During the Rashidun caliphs, Arab Muslim forces expanded outward beyond the Arabian peninsula and into the territories of the neighboring Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. These empires were significantly weakened after a period of fighting with one another and other peripheral factions like the Turks, economic turmoil, disease, and environmental problems.
The Arab Muslim conquerors were primed to take advantage of this; they were familiar with Byzantine and Sasanian military tactics, having served in both armies.
With the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires on the decline and strategically disadvantaged, Arab Muslim armies were able to quickly take over vast territories that once belonged to the Byzantines and Sasanians and even conquer beyond those territories to the east and west.
Most conquests happened during the reign of the second caliph, Umar, who held power from 634 to 644. The Rashidun caliphate constructed a massive empire out of many swift military victories. They expanded for both religious and political reasons, which was common at the time.
One political advantage the Rashidun caliphate held was their ability to maintain stability and unity among the Arab tribes. Distinct, feuding Arab tribes united into a cohesive political force, partially through the promise of military conquest. However, this unity was tentative and ultimately gave way to major divergences that disrupted state and religious institutions in the coming centuries.
A new political structure
The Rashidun can be credited for military expansion, but did Islam truly spread through their conquests? Significant conversion and the cultural exchange did not occur during their short rule, nor were complex political institutions developed. It was not until the Umayyad Dynasty—from 661 to 750—that Islamic and Arabic culture began to truly spread. The Abbasid Dynasty—from 750 to 1258—intensified and solidified these cultural changes.
Before the Umayyads, Islamic rule was non-centralized. The military was organized under the caliphate, a political structure led by a Muslim steward known as a caliph, who was regarded as the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. The early caliphate had a strong army and built garrison towns, but it did not build sophisticated administrations. The caliphate mostly kept existing governments and cultures intact and administered by governors and financial officers in order to collect taxes.
The Rashidun caliphate was also not dynastic, meaning that political leadership was not transferred through lineage. During this period, it seems the Arab tribes retained their communal clan-based systems of choosing leaders.
However, to sustain such a massive empire, more robust state structures were necessary, and the Umayyads began developing these structures, which were often influenced by the political structures in neighboring empires like the Byzantines and Sasanians. Under the Umayyads, a dynastic and centralized Islamic political state emerged.
The Umayyads shifted the capital from Mecca to Syria and replaced tribal traditions with an imperial government controlled by a monarch. They replaced Greek, Persian, and Coptic with Arabic as the main administrative language and reinforced an Arab Islamic identity. Notably, an Arab hierarchy emerged, in which non-Arabs were accorded secondary status.
The Umayyads also minted Islamic coins and developed a more sophisticated bureaucracy, in which governors named viziers oversaw smaller political units.The Umayyads did not actively encourage conversion, and most subjects remained non-Muslim. Because non-Muslim subjects were required to pay a special tax, the Umayyads were able to subsidize their political expansion.
The Umayyads did not come into power smoothly. The transition between the rule of the Rashidun and the first Umayyads was full of strife. Debates raged about the nature of Islamic leadership and religious authority. These conflicts evolved into major schisms between Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi Islam.
Ultimately, there were many factions that regarded the Umayyads as corrupt and illegitimate, some of whom rallied around new leaders. These new leaders claimed legitimacy through shared lineage with the prophet Muhammad, through the prophet’s uncle, Abbas. They led a revolt against the Umayyads, bringing the Abbasid caliphate to power.
The Abbasids were intent on differentiating themselves from their Umayyad predecessors, though they still had a lot in common. Abbasid leadership was also dynastic and centralized. However, they changed the social hierarchy by constructing a more inclusive government in a more cosmopolitan capital city, Baghdad. The distinction between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims diminished, with Persian culture exerting a greater influence on the Abbasid court.
Under the Abbasids, Islamic art and culture flourished.
They are famous for inaugurating the Islamic golden age. Religious scholars, called ulema, developed more defined religious institutions and took on judicial duties and developed systems of law. It was also during Abbasid rule that many people converted to Islam, for a multitude of reasons including sincere belief and avoiding paying taxes levied on non-Muslims. As a result, Islamic culture spread over the Abbasids’ vast territory.
Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711-718 A.D. He is considered to be one of the most important military commanders in Iberian history. The name "Gibraltar" is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Tāriq (جبل طارق) (meaning "mountain Tariq"), named after him.
There are accounts of the trade connections between the Muslims and the Rus, apparently, Vikings who made their way towards the Black Sea through Central Russia. On his way to Volga Bulgaria, Ibn Fadlan brought detailed reports of the Rus, claiming that some had converted to Islam.
According to the historian Yaqut al-Hamawi, the Böszörmény (Izmaelita or Ismaili / Nizari) denomination of the Muslims who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10th to 13th centuries, were employed as mercenaries by the kings of Hungary.
A major development in the history of Muslim Spain was the dynastic change in 750 in the Arab Caliphate, when an Umayyad Prince escaped the slaughter of his family in Damascus, fled to Cordoba in Spain, and created a new Islamic state in the area. This was the start of a distinctly Spanish Muslim society, where large Christian and Jewish populations coexisted with an increasing percentage of Muslims.
There are many stories of descendants of Visigothic chieftains and Roman counts whose families converted to Islam during this period. The at-first small Muslim elite continued to grow with converts, and with a few exceptions, rulers in Islamic Spain allowed Christians and Jews the right specified in the Koran to practice their own religions, though non-Muslims suffered from political and taxation inequities.
The net result was, in those areas of Spain where Muslim rule lasted the longest, the creation of a society that was mostly Arabic-speaking because of the assimilation of native inhabitants, a process in some ways similar to the assimilation many years later of millions of immigrants to the United States into the English-speaking culture.
At the descendants of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans concentrated in the north of the peninsula, in the kingdoms of Asturias/Leon, Navarre and Aragon and started a long campaign known as the 'Reconquista' which started with the victory of the Christian armies in Covadonga in 722.
Military campaigns continued without pause. In 1085 Alfonso VI of Castille took back Toledo. In 1212 the crucial Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa meant the recovery of the bulk of the peninsula for the Christian kingdoms. In 1238 James I of Aragon took Valencia. In 1236 the ancient Roman city of Cordoba was re-conquered by Ferdinand III of Castille and in 1248 the city of Seville. The famous medieval epic poem 'Cantar de Mio Cid' narrates the life and deeds of this hero during the Reconquista.
The Islamic state centered in Cordoba had ended up splintering into many smaller kingdoms (the so-called taifas). While Muslim Spain was fragmenting, the Christian kingdoms grew larger and stronger, and the balance of power shifted against the 'Taifa' kingdoms.
The last Muslim kingdom of Granada in the south was finally taken in 1492 by Queen Isabelle of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon. In 1499, the remaining Muslim inhabitants were ordered to convert or leave. Poorer Muslims who could not afford to leave ended up converting to Catholic Christianity and hiding their Muslim practices, hiding from the Spanish Inquisition, until their presence was finally extinguished.
In Balkan history, historical writing on the topic of conversion to Islam was, and still is, a highly charged political issue. It is intrinsically linked to the issues of formation of national identities and rival territorial claims of the Balkan states.
The generally accepted nationalist discourse of the current Balkan historiography defines all forms of Islamization as results of the Ottoman government's centrally organized policy of conversion or dawah. The truth is that Islamization in each Balkan country took place in the course of many centuries, and its nature and phase were determined not by the Ottoman government but by the specific conditions of each locality.
Ottoman conquests were initially military and economic enterprises, and religious conversions were not their primary objective. True, the statements surrounding victories all celebrated the incorporation of the territory into Muslim domains, but the actual Ottoman focus was on taxation and making the realms productive, and a religious campaign would have disrupted that economic objective.
Ottoman Islamic standards of toleration allowed for autonomous "nations" (millets) in the Empire, under their own personal law and under the rule of their own religious leaders. As a result, vast areas of the Balkans remained mostly Christian during the period of Ottoman domination. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Churches had a higher position in the Ottoman Empire,
Mainly because the Patriarch resided in Istanbul and was an officer of the Ottoman Empire. In contrast, Roman Catholics, while tolerated, were suspected of loyalty to a foreign power (the Papacy). It is no surprise that the Roman Catholic areas of Bosnia, Kosovo, and northern Albania, ended up with more substantial conversions to Islam. The defeat of the Ottomans in 1699 by the Austrians resulted in their loss of Hungary and present-day Croatia.
The remaining Muslim converts in both elected to leave "lands of unbelief" and moved to territory still under the Ottomans. Around this point in time, new European ideas of romantic nationalism started to seep into the Empire and provided the intellectual foundation for new nationalistic ideologies and the reinforcement of the self-image of many Christian groups as subjugated peoples.
As a rule, the Ottomans did not require followers of Greek Orthodoxy to become Muslims, although many did so in order to avert the socioeconomic hardships of Ottoman rule
One by one, the Balkan nationalities asserted their independence from the Empire, and frequently the presence of members of the same ethnicity who had converted to Islam presented a problem from the point of view of the now dominant new national ideology, which narrowly defined the nation as members of the local dominant Orthodox Christian denomination.
Some Muslims in the Balkans chose to leave, while many others were forcefully expelled to what was left of the Ottoman Empire. This demographic transition can be illustrated by the decrease in the number of mosques in Belgrade, from over 70 in 1750 (before Serbian independence in 1815), to only three in 1850.
Since the 1960s, many Muslims have migrated to Western Europe. They have come as immigrants, guest workers, asylum seekers or as part of family reunification. As a result, Muslim population in Europe has steadily risen
The writer Bat Ye'or stated in her book "Eurabia" that Muslims may become a majority within a few generations due to continued immigration and high birth rates. This theory has been criticized, however. Many suggest the claims are built on unreliable claims and that fertility rates of Muslims will eventually decrease and that immigration to European nations could be limited.
Europe and the Islamic World, 1600–1800
At the beginning of this period, the European presence in the Islamic world was largely based on trade. Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese merchants first arrived in the late fifteenth century, attracted by the wealth that could be acquired in exporting luxury items to the European market, and encouraged by the Mughal and Safavid governments, which desired trade partners to stimulate the economy.
Diplomatic ties later officially cemented these partnerships. The first British representatives arrived in Persia in 1622 and the French in 1638. The Portuguese landed in India in 1498 and the French soon afterward, but the British, under the aegis of the East India Company, would prove to be the chief force in the subcontinent. Sir Thomas Roe brokered the first trade treaty in 1615.
was initially more isolated as it had a strong domestic trade network, but in the eighteenth century, it began to receive European merchants and consuls as well as to send out its own. One mission from Turkey visited the court of Louis XV of France in the 1720s.
As the Europeans were introduced to many new kinds of textiles
, spices, and clothing
, So too was the Islamic world enriched. European art circulating among court artists transformed painting under both the Mughals and the Safavids. By carefully copying the engravings in sixteenth-century illustrated Bibles presented by Jesuit missionaries, Indian artists learned techniques of modeling and spatial recession that they then applied to their own works. Illustrations in books
Of herbals affected the way flowers and plants were depicted. In Persia, oil paintings had a greater effect, the lifesize portraits of Louis XIV sent to Isfahan eventually metamorphosing into Zand and Qajar state portraits.
Although manuscripts such as the Bellini Album (67.266.7.8r) attest that European drawings were known in Turkey, it was exposure to the French Baroque that captured the local imagination. Soon after the return of travelers to Versailles, flamboyant architectural ornament began to appear on both royal residential buildings and mosques
By the end of the period, European colonial interests had upset this equitable cultural exchange. The British East India Company established an army to protect its commercial interests in India; its 1757 defeat of the Nawab of Bengal led to further armed conflicts and finally to the 1858 declaration of British sovereignty over the country. The British also became involved in interdynastic conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula and established a military post in Muscat, Oman. Napoleon
invaded Egypt in 1798, and though he was forced to withdraw from the area in 1801, the French would later occupy parts of North Africa. The Dutch became involved in lands further east, especially in the Indonesian archipelago, where islands controlled by different Muslim rulers were united as one colony.
The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam
Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilization.
The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognized as something far more protracted. "Late Antiquity" is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. "We see in late antiquity," so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, "a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made."
Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognizably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion
So momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognize this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.
Consider a single sheet of papyrus bearing the decidedly unromantic sobriquet of PERF 558. It was uncovered back in the 19th century at the Egyptian city of Herakleopolis, a faded ruin 80 miles south of Cairo. Herakleopolis itself had passed most of its existence in a condition of somnolent provincialism: first as an Egyptian city, and then, following the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, as a colony run by and largely for Greeks.
The makeover given to it by this new elite was to prove an enduring one. A thousand years on – and some 600 years after its absorption into the Roman empire – Herakleopolis still sported a name that provided, on the banks of the Nile, a little touch of far-off Greece:
"the city of Heracles". PERF 558 too, in its own humble way, also bore witness to the impact on Egypt of an entire millennium of foreign rule. It was a receipt, issued for 65 sheep, presented to two officials bearing impeccably Hellenic names Christophoros and Theodorakis and written in Greek.
But not in Greek alone. The papyrus sheet also featured a second language, one never before seen in Egypt. What was it doing there, on an official council receipt? The sheep, according to a note added in Greek on the back, had been requisitioned by "Magaritai" – but who or what were they?
The answer was to be found on the front of the papyrus sheet, within the text of the receipt itself. The "Margarita", it appeared, were none other than the people known as "Saracens": nomads from Arabia, long dismissed by the Romans as "despised and insignificant". Clearly, that these barbarians were now in a position to extort sheep from city councilors suggested a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
Nor was that all. The most bizarre revelation of the receipt, perhaps, lay in the fact that a race of shiftless nomads, bandits who for as long as anyone could remember had been lost to an unvarying barbarism, appeared to have developed their own calendar. "The 30th of the month of Pharmouthi of the first indication": so the receipt was logged in Greek, a date which served to place it in year 642 since the birth of Christ.
But it was also, so the receipt declared in the Saracens' own language, "the year twenty-two": 22 years since what? Some momentous occurrence, no doubt, of evidently great significance to the Saracens themselves. But what precisely, and whether it might have contributed to the arrival of the newcomers in Egypt, and how it was to be linked to that enigmatic title "Magaritai", PERF 558 does not say.
We can now recognise the document as the marker of something seismic. The Margarita was destined to implant themselves in the country far more enduringly than the Greeks or the Romans had ever done. Arabic, the language they had brought with them, and that appears as such a novelty on PERF 558, is nowadays so native to Egypt that the country has come to rank as the power-house of Arab culture.
Yet even a transformation of that order barely touches on the full scale of the changes which are hinted at so prosaically. A new age, of which that tax receipt issued in Herakleopolis in "the year 22" ranks as the oldest surviving dateable document, had been brought into being.
This, to almost one in four people alive today, is a matter of more than merely historical interest. Infinitely more – for it touches, in their opinion, on the very nature of the Divine. The question of what it was that had brought the Magaritai to Herakleopolis, and to numerous other cities besides, has lain, for many centuries now, at the heart of a great and global religion: Islam.
It was the prompting hand of God, not a mere wanton desire to extort sheep, that had first motivated the Arabs to leave their desert homeland. Such, at any rate, was the conviction of Ibn Hisham, a scholar based in Egypt who wrote a century and a half after the first appearance of the Magaritai in Herakleopolis, but whose fascination with the period, and with the remarkable events that had stamped it, was all-consuming.
No longer, by AD 800, were the Magaritai to be reckoned a novelty. Instead – known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" – they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superseded civilizations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill.
What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad.
Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, this is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since.
That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra, had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham.
The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.
The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable. To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad. Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct,
And that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights. That the Arab conquests were part of a much faster and more protracted drama, the decline, and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten.
Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives.
The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt. In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves.
Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight. Yet it is curious that long before the historian Peter Brown came to write his seminal volume The World of Late Antiquity – which traced, to influential effect, patterns throughout the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Baghdad – a number of bestselling novelists had got there first. What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.
"There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said." So begins Isaac Asimov's Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon's magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to ensure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall.
The influence of the novel and its two sequels has been huge and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars – from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov's narrative closely follows that of Gibbon.
Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions and conquer much of the galaxy.
The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.
Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of an interstellar empire, Frank Herbert's Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war – a jihad. Herbert's hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. "I cannot do the simplest thing," he reflects, "without its becoming a legend."
Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be "the only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad".
There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham's biography may have been the first to survive – but it was not the last. As the years went by, and even more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous.
Fresh evidence – wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers – would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.
Herbert's novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography – in which Paul has become "Muad'Dib", the legendary "Dune Messiah" – with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad?
Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this – so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep?
That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a "Year 22". But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad's life – or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?
There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad's life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire, there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God.
The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero – who was supposed to have lived long before – was Arthur.
The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court
The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The idea was to prove a precious one – so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.
Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales.
Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it "the work of giants". Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcnéas, and Orthanc a generic – "elves and orcs", and "the skillful work of giants".
These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness.
Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments or mere rumors of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become specters and phantasms. "Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets."
So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, a scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that "awful scene". What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge.
An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, "falling year by year into decay". Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains – and suffer a similar fate.
Tolkien's ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, "was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it". In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.
It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome's declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire's collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions.
Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured – and on occasion forgotten completely.
The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.
How France Defeated the Islamic Empire—1,300 Years Ago
When the ISIS terrorists murdered 130 victims in Paris, they did so in the name of history. ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—seeks to recreate the medieval Islamic caliphate that once stretched from Spain to Baghdad. And so they attacked France, which they perceive as yet another Western obstacle to their grand ambitions.
But before they took on France, perhaps they should have studied their history better. They would have learned that it was the French who stopped the Islamic empire from overrunning western Europe 1,300 years.
In 732 CE, at the height of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, Islam seemed unstoppable. Boiling out of the Arabian desert just a century before, the Muslim armies conquered North Africa, Spain, the Caucasus and the Middle East with astonishing speed in what must have seemed like a medieval blitzkrieg. The tough, bold and highly motivated desert warriors plundered the decaying corpses of the ancient empires: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Sassanid (Persian).
And as the victorious armies of the Umayyad Caliphate surged out of the Iberian peninsula into southern and then central France, they must have savored the prospect of adding the Christian lands of western Europe to their domains. If they accomplished that, the Islamic empire might have become the superpower of its day, the medieval equivalent in the military and economic power of the modern United States.
But they had not reckoned with the Franks, a Germanic-speaking people who took advantage of the decaying Roman Empire to settle in France and Belgium (and as you can guess, from whom the name "France" derives). It was the Franks who stopped the Islamic empire's advance at the Battle of Tours, a city in the middle of modern-day France.
As with many medieval battles, hard numbers and facts are scarce. It appears that Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi, governor of Muslim-occupied Spain, entered southern France with perhaps 80,000 soldiers to extend the domains of the Islamic empire, and perhaps more important in that era, plunder the rich Gallic countryside (a practice that ISIS continues today).
The Muslim forces were composed of Moorish (Arab and Berber) light cavalry "who fought from horseback, depending on bravery and religious fervor to make up for their lack of armor or archery, " writes historian Paul Davis in his book 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present. "Instead, the Moors fought with scimitars and lances.
Their standard method of fighting was to engage in mass cavalry charges, depending on numbers and courage to overwhelm any enemy; it was a tactic that had carried them thousands of miles and defeated dozens of opponents. Their weakness was that all they could do was an attack; they had no training or even concept of defense."
Facing the Umayyad army was an army of possibly 30,000 Franks led by Charles Martel, who confronted the invaders near Tours. The Frankish way of war was the antithesis of their opponents. "The Franks were hardy soldiers that armed themselves as heavy infantry, wearing some armor and fighting mainly with swords and axes," Davis writes.
Does this sound familiar? A heavily armed and armored Western army versus lightly armed but more mobile Arab troops? In some ways, Tours was a precursor to the fighting we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sort of tactics that ISIS has successfully used today. But this time, those mobile tactics didn't work. Islamic cavalry repeatedly charged the Frankish lines, but the Franks held firm against the lightly armed Moorish horsemen.
More significantly, one Arab chronicler of the battle wrote that fear for their plundered loot induced the Muslim army to retreat: "But many of the Moslems were fearful for the safety of the spoil which they had stored in their tents, and a false cry arose in their ranks that some of the enemies were plundering the camp; whereupon several squadrons of the Moslem horsemen rode off to protect their tents."
The Islamic army returned home, their dreams of glory and wealth unfulfilled. But the consequences were far more momentous than lost plunder. "Had the Moslems been victorious in the battle near Tours, it is difficult to suppose what population in Western Europe could have organized to resist them," Davis writes. By the nineteenth century, the Western empires had carved up the Muslim world; had the Battle of Tours turned out differently, ISIS could be ruling the Western world.
This is not to glory in Frankish victory; Christian Europe showed neither mercy nor morality when it terrorized, murdered and pillaged its way to Jerusalem during the Crusades 400 years later. However, the fact remains that the westward expansion of the Islamic empire had been halted. The caliphate had been defeated by the French. Something that ISIS would do well to remember.
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