Chapter 10 The Rise of Islam

Section  2 The Expansion of Islam

United under the banner of the prophet Muhammad and his message of religious renewal, the Muslims spread out from their Arabian homeland into surrounding regions. Byzantium, Persia, parts of Europe and India all felt the effects of the sword of Islam. By the early eighth century, the Islamic empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River and from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.


Muhammad's death created a crisis. In addition to the question of choosing a successor, his followers in Medina had to deal with the potential collapse of the fledgling Islamic state. Many of the desert tribes had converted to Islam only out of a personal sense of loyalty to Muhammad. Such arrangements made sense under the Bedouin code of honor. His death, they believed, released them from their allegiance. As the tribes fell away from Islam, the Faithful in Medina had to decide what to do.

            The search for Muhammad's successor caused rifts among his followers. In keeping with traditional Arab views on hereditary leadership, some preferred his cousin, Ali, Muhammad’s closest male heir who had also married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. Ali was still relatively young, however, and some older leaders feared he was too hot-headed to lead the community wisely. Many also argued that the egalitarian nature of Islam and the umma did not support the concept of a dynastic leadership. In the end, they chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad's oldest friend and one of his first converts.

            Since the Qur’an had said that Muhammad would be the last prophet, Abu Bakr could not rule as Muhammad had by receiving divine revelations. He and all subsequent leaders of the umma were not prophets, but caliphs, or "deputies" of the Prophet. They ruled according to the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example. Spiritual and secular authority, though no longer identical as they had been under Muhammad, remained close, as this Muslim saying demonstrates:  

Islam, the government, and the people are like the tent, the pole, the ropes, and the pegs. The tent is Islam; the pole is the government; the ropes and pegs are the people. None will do without the others.

            As caliph, Abu Bakr moved quickly to force the wayward Bedouin tribes back to Islam. In a series of campaigns, known as the Ridda Wars, or Wars of Apostasy, over the next year he forced all the tribes to recognize the authority of Medina and the Caliphate once again. By the end of the Wars of Apostasy, all Arabia was united under the Prophet's standard. 


            As the tribes returned to Islam, Abu Bakr needed some way to channel them away from their traditional habits of fighting one another. Muslims were not supposed to fight fellow Muslims. He also needed to give them something to do before they revolted against Medina's rule again. Fortunately, a remedy lay close at hand. While fighting the Ridda Wars, Abu Bakr had forged several strong new armies under experienced amirs, or military commanders. Once the rebellions in Arabia came to an end, the caliph recruited t newly reconverted tribesmen into these armies and sent them north into Iraq and Syria against the Persian and Byzantine empires.


Weakness in the Persian and Byzantine empires aided Muslim expansion. Both empires were exhausted from years of fighting one other. In addition, people in Syria and Iraq were culturally and ethnically related to the Arabs themselves. Although mostly Christian, they had more in common with the invading Muslims than with their own rulers. In fact, the Byzantine emperors considered most Syrians to be heretics. The imperial government had recently raised taxes in Syria and abolished an old tax exemption for southern border tribes protecting the frontier. These tribes promptly joined the Muslims.  

Umar.  By Abu Bakr's death in 634, his armies had conquered most of Syria, Iraq, and southern Persia. On his deathbed Abu Bakr chose Umar, another of Muhammad's closest companions, to succeed him. According to Islamic tradition, Umar was the perfect example of what a caliph should be, devout and personally modest. Visitors to his capital were sometimes astonished at the state in which they found the caliph of all Islam at the height of his power: "a man clad only in a loin-cloth and a short cloak, in which he had wrapped his head, driving the camels into the enclosure." [3][3]

            Umar continued Abu Bakr's policy of military expansion. In doing so he laid the foundations for the new state. Signifying his military intent, he assumed the title Amir al-Mu'minin, or Commander of the Faithful. He established a national register, listing every man, woman, and child of Arabia. Each person was assigned a specified share in the wealth of the umma as they or members of their families enlisted in the armies and joined the conquests. Thousands of Arabs flocked to the armies to qualify for the new military allowances.

Military conquests and government. Umar's policies led to the rapid expansion of the Islamic empire. After an initial setback, in 636 an Arab army defeated Persian forces at Qadisiya in southern Iraq. Shortly thereafter the Arabs captured the winter capital of the Persian Empire and with it all of Iraq. After a further series of battles, in 642 the armies of Islam achieved a devastating blow, which the Arabs called the Victory of Victories, against the Persian army. Soon all Persia had been overrun.

            To the west the story was the same. The great imperial armies of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius proved no match for the highly mobile Bedouin forces. In 635 the Byzantines surrendered Damascus, the capital of Syria, to the victorious warriors of Islam. In 638 the Arabs took Jerusalem, the third holy city of Islam, after Mecca and Medina. In 639 another Arab army invaded the Byzantine province of Egypt. By 642 Islam had added the Nile Valley to its list of conquests. In little more than a decade, the Arab warriors had carved out a new empire for themselves and their new religion.[4][4]

            Throughout the conquered lands the Arabs became a new warrior elite. To keep themselves separate from their new subjects, they built huge military camps. Eventually these camps became the foundations for new Islamic cities. The most famous were Kufa and Basra in Iraq and Cairo in Egypt.

            Booty and taxes from the conquered peoples were sent back to Medina. All Muslims should have shared equally in the wealth, but Umar decreed that the earlier a family had converted, the greater their share should be. Those who had migrated with Muhammad from Mecca to Medina and the prophet’s own family and descendants got the most. A new Islamic aristocracy thus began to emerge.

            The conquests of Islam represented a mass movement of the newly united Arabs out of the relative poverty of Arabia into the wealthier surrounding civilizations. In these early years of expansion, religious conversion was not a major priority. In fact, both religious and administrative factors may actually have discouraged the conversion of conquered peoples.

            The Qur'an had given special recognition to Jews, Christians, and other peoples with a written scripture, calling them ahl al-kitab, or “People of the Book.” Once conquered, they were to be "protected peoples," called dhimmis. They paid for this protection, however. Where Muslims paid the zakat, or alms for the poor, dhimmis paid a larger tax called the jizya. Dhimmis also had to continue paying the old Byzantine and Persian taxes, which Umar had redirected into the Islamic treasury. As converts they would have to pay only the zakat, thus reducing the umma's revenues. Consequently, conversion was not encouraged.[5][5]  


In 644, a Persian slave stabbed Umar to settle a vendetta. As he lay dying, the caliph appointed a small group of men to choose his successor. Bypassing Ali once again, they decided on another of Muhammad's earliest converts, Uthman.

            Known for his piety, Uthman was also a member of the powerful Umayyad clan of the Meccan ruling tribe of Quraish. The Umayyads had been among Muhammad's worst enemies in Mecca. They had converted to Islam, but only under pressure. Uthman, an old man, became a tool in the hands of his more ambitious clan members. Soon the old ruling elite of Mecca had reasserted themselves in the new Islamic empire.

            After Uthman's election as caliph tensions began to build among the Muslims. Many accused Uthman of favoring his own family and clan members. The Umayyads themselves began to act like the pre-Islamic Arab aristocracy, emphasizing old bedouin values of personal and family honor. As dissatisfaction grew, rebellious forces from the army in Egypt marched against Medina and assassinated Uthman in 656. In reaction against the Umayyads, Ali was at last chosen as caliph.

            The Umayyads did not give up power easily. On Uthman's death, his cousin Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, became head of the clan. Mu'awiyah claimed that Ali had taken part in the plot to assassinate Uthman and was therefore unfit to guide the umma. Supported by Syrian Arab tribes, Mu'awiyah claimed the caliphate for himself. Civil war engulfed Islam. By 657 the tide of battle had turned in Ali's favor. Mu'awiyah called for a negotiated peace. Ali agreed, but many of his own followers turned against him for failing to finish off the rebels. The war dragged on until 661 when Ali was assassinated by one of his own former supporters. Mu'awiyah assumed sole power.

            Although most Muslims accepted Mu’awiyah and remained Sunni, meaning followers of the Sunna, or way of the Prophet, Ali's supporters did not. They became known as Shi'ites, from the term Shi'at Ali, or Party of Ali. Shi’ites believed that Ali's descendants were specially blessed by God because they were the true heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi'ites called Ali's successors imams, a term that had been used to mean the leader of the Friday prayers. For Shi'ites, the imams  were the only ones who could interpret the Qur'an. Although they never ruled, for Shi'ites they remained the legitimate authority in Islam. Some extreme Shi'ites even believed that the imams received divine revelations that overrode the Qur'an.


Mu'awiya's reign as caliph marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty and the resurgence of the older Arab society over the new Islamic society. Early Umayyad caliphs ruled more like desert chieftains than religious leaders. Because power meant more to the Umayyads than piety, they moved their capital from Medina to Damascus, which was closer to their supporters among the Syrian Arab tribes. Damascus was also a more convenient location from which to rule their expanding empire.

            Despite their power, however, in Damascus many Umayyads at first longed for the freedom of life in Arabia. One of Mu'awiya's wives, a bedouin named Maysun, lamented the change in verse:

A tent with rustling breezes cool

Delights me more than palaces high,

And more the cloak of simple wool

Than robes in which I learned to sigh.


The crust I ate beside my tent

Was more than this fine bread to me;

The wind's voice where the hill-path went

Was more than tambourine can be.[6][6]

Over time, however, the Umayyads could not escape being influenced by Byzantine civilization in Syria, particularly as they adopted the old Byzantine bureaucracy to rule their empire.

Umayyad expansion. With power and wealth as their primary goal, the Umayyad caliphs continued to expand the empire. In the east their armies reached deep into central Asia. They conquered many Turkish tribes and eventually came into contact with the T'ang Empire of China. They also conquered the kingdoms of northwestern India. From Syria Umayyad forces took to the sea and soon dominated the eastern Mediterranean with its important trade routes. Sicily became a major Islamic center, as did most of the other islands of the Mediterranean. Umayyad forces even besieged Constantinople, though without success. In the west their armies were more successful, conquering the Byzantine provinces in North Africa.

            Beyond Tunisia they were temporarily halted by the Berbers, a North African people much like the pre-Islamic Bedouin. In 682, however, Muslim forces reached the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually the Berbers converted to Islam, and in 711 a combined Arab and Berber army began the rapid conquest of Spain. By 732 they had swept across the Pyrenees into France, where Frankish forces near the city of Tours stopped a small Muslim raiding force.

            Although later European accounts would mark this as a major defeat for the Muslims, in fact it was only a minor engagement. Islamic forces remained in southern France for many years. However, the Muslims were used to the deserts and high plains of the Middle East, Africa, and Spain. They found central and northern France too cold, wet, and dark. The landscape did not favor their methods of warfare, which depended on the use of light cavalry. Camels died from the cold and the light, wiry horses of Arabia were not bred for the muddy fields or forests of northern Europe. Nor did these regions favor the agricultural techniques and crops with which the Muslim world was familiar. Eventually the Muslims withdrew behind the Pyrenees into the friendlier sunlit plains of Spain.

The fall of the Umayyads. As Umayyad power grew, many of the newly conquered peoples began to see advantages in converting to Islam. The Umayyads, however, were determined to maintain the separate status of the Arabs themselves as a ruling elite. So they insisted that non-Arab converts must become clients, or mawalis, of Arab tribes. Soon, Islamic society consisted of two classes: Arab conquerors and second-class mawalis. Below both Arabs and mawalis were Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Zoroastrians who had chosen not to convert.

            The mawalis resented their second-class status. They expected to be treated equally according to the teachings of the Qur'an. Arab opponents of the Umayyads used this discontent and that of the Shi'ites to foster a revolution. In 750 a new dynasty came to power: the Abbasids, who claimed descent from the prophet's uncle Abbas.


To overthrow the Umayyads, the Abbasids had relied upon the discontented mawalis and the Shi'ites. The main source of power for both groups lay in southern Iraq and in Persia, especially the province of Khorasan in northeastern Iran. The Shi'ites had expected a descendant of Ali to assume the caliphate. But soon the Abbasids turned on their Shi'ite supporters and drove them into opposition again. To be close to their supporters and keep an eye on their new enemies, the Abbasids moved the capital. On the banks of the Tigris River they built a great new imperial city, Baghdad.

            The move to Baghdad marked the end of Arab dominance of the Islamic empire and the beginning of Persian influence. The caliphs no longer sat in tribal council as they had done even under the early Umayyads. Instead, they adopted the Persian style and ruled as semi-divine leaders. They were enthroned in majesty, generally behind a magnificently carved screen or embroidered curtain so that their subjects could not see them. Nearby stood the official executioner with sword and a circle of leather for those condemned by the caliph to kneel on. A new official title proclaimed the caliph's status as the "Shadow of God on Earth".

            Distrusting the Arab tribes, the Abbasids resurrected the old Persian bureaucracy and relied increasingly on non-Arabs and even non-Muslims. Specialized government departments headed by viziers, or “deputies”, oversaw affairs of state. To keep in touch with the empire, the Abbasids repaired the major roads. Rejecting the Umayyad emphasis on the Arab nature of Islam, the Abbasids appealed to all members of the umma for support. From an elite religion of the Arabian conquerors, they now worked to make Islam truly universal, the basis of their rule as caliphs.