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Compared with Christianity as a new religion Islam took off much more quickly
and spread rapidly throughout the Middle East and beyond. Identify the factors
that may help explain Islams dramatic expansion.
Compared to Christianity, the speed and totality of Islam's expansion across the
Middle East and beyond was nothing short of breathtaking. Althogh the appealing
natre of Mhammad's message, his personal charisma, military genis as well as his
ability to draw Arab followers in complete de!otion to himself were the fondational
forces that established Islam and nited Arabian tribes nder its banner, there were
many other factors at play in its phenomenonal sccess. "y the time Mslim armies
brst throgh the Arab frontier, with their pre#Islamic cltre predisposing them to a
ni$e type of resilience and self reliance, they tra!elled $ickly and pillaged !ast areas
in short periods of time. Copled with this, the impo!erished and war#torn state of mch
of both the "y%antine and &ersian empires meant the inhabitants were ill prepared for
the striking Arab attacks and nable to defend themsel!es against the shocking and
nexpected wa!e of Arabian con$erors. 'inally, the ready acceptance of Mslim rle
de to a combination of Islam's easy conditions, open $ality and the crmbing state of
most of the pre!iosly "y%antine or (asanian domains contribted greatly to its sccess
and pa!ed the way for the de!elopment of Islam across the region for centries to come.
Mhammad clearly possessed a personal charisma and a striking ability to illicit
de!otion to himself and his mission. E!en thogh he ne!er wa!ered from his deeply
religios con!ictions, he was, ne!ertheless, a shrewd politician and sed his political
system in order to reach his spirital goal of men ltimately li!ing in harmony with each
other in sbmission to the one tre )od
. *e was calclating, patient, and in control of
his emotions bt also gifted in the art of military planning and campaigning
. *e $ickly
drew a grop of disciples who grew into an atocratic commnity which natrally lead
to strggles for power of the region. ,his first commnity was religios in origin bt
de to the natre of Arab society became politically focsed almost immediately. A
strong army in the form of organised militia with an independent sorce of wealth
meant that Mhammad's political party was able to silence any opposition within its
1 Maxime -odinson, Muhammad, +..+, p.+1/
+ Ibid. p.+1/
+ Christine Vandor
ranks and eliminate those who wold not assimilate
. 1nce Arabia was nited, howe!er,
Mhammad became not only the messenger of )od to a specific grop bt also the head
of a new Islamic state comprised of a commnity of belie!ers de!oted to )od and his
laws. As the newly organised Arab armies ad!anced ot of Arabia and con$ered new
lands they broght with them both a political and social order that was cltrally
Arabian and based firmly on the ideology of their faith
1nce the spirital fondations were laid throgh Mhammad's preaching in
Medina, and as the new order expanded throgh Arabia by both con!ersion and force
call to mobilise the commnity and gi!e them rles to li!e by became the primary
concern. ,his was achie!ed throgh the 4oran. -lings for domestic concerns as well
as orders for soldiers and explanations for specific conflicts and battles were all
addressed in the 4oran as needs arose. -ather than conflicting with long held cltral
rlings howe!er, the new legislation confirmed many practices and traditions that were
familiar to Arab families, bt placed them within a Mslim context. ,his also ser!ed to
nify the commnity frther gi!ing them concrete instrctions from their leader in all
aspects of commnal life
,he sccessfl de!elopment of the Islamic state within the *i5a% and the greater
Arabian peninsla was most certainly the initial factor that led to the greater Mslim
con$ests in the Middle East and beyond. ,he organisation of anarchical Arabian tribes
into a nited forces with a clear, well#defined prpose was the key to this sccess. ,he
army raised by Mhammad was not, at first, the type of standing armies that were
typical in srronding empires bt rather consisted of !olnteers from !arios allied
tribes than responded to his call when the need arose. After battles the war spoils were
shared ot, as dictated in the 4oran, and warrior retrned to his own home
. ,he stable
natre of Islam within Arabia can be entirely attribted to the way in which Mslim
ideology appealed to and captred the minds of the people7 particlarly the minds of
0 -odinson, Muhammad, p.+13.
2 8ohn 9. Esposito, Islam the Straight Path, +.11, p.0:.
3(imon (ebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, +.11, p.16;.
/ -odinson, Muhammad, p.+01.
6 8acob 9assner < Michael "onner, Islam in the Middle Ages, p.;..
0 Christine Vandor
those responsible for making decisions sch as the chiefs and leaders of tribes
,he way in which Mhammad formed the new state played a !ital role in the
Arab con$est and laid the fondation for expansion in the centries to come
tribal mentality of pre#Islamic Arabia contined to be the central political ideology, and
instead of re5ecting tribalism otright, Mhammad simply worked to redirect loyalties
towards his 'spra#tribal confederation'
. ,ribal life was e!erything, and in this
patriarchal society a man's entire identity was tied to his tribe. It was not ncommon,
howe!er, for men to switch tribes, and claim descent from another tribe if, for instance,
that tribe was pro!ing more sccessfl than their own. ,ribes increased and decreased in
nmber depending on the strength and sccess of their chiefs. 9eadership was passed
from father to son bt a new chief was re$ired to earn his position by pro!ing his
strengths throgh diplomacy, sccessfl exploits and wise decisions. If he did not meet
the expectations of the tribe he cold not expect their allegiance
. ,herefore, a man's
personal gain was an element in determining where his loyalties lay
. )i!en this
existing social strctre, the new Mslim commnity, the =mmah, was essentially a
tribe that was established not on biological descent bt rather the acceptance of
Mhammad's religion, which was simply to accept Allah as the one tre )od and
Mhammad as his prophet. It is likely that many indi!idal con!ersions came throgh
acceptance of grop tribal decisions to align with the Mhammad's political agenda
E!en thogh part of the niting process inclded exploiting the almost ni!ersal belief
that Arabs descended from Abraham throgh Ishmael, which helped bind allegiance to
it, the =mmah was less abot genealogy and more abot loyalties to the religion rather
than familial descent. "t for all intents and prposes it operated in mch the same way
as traditional tribal life, and this pro!ided an exceptional strong fondation for the
Islamic state and a formidable force for expansion
: -odinson, Muhammad, p.++6.
; Marshall *odgson, The Venture of Islam vol.2, 1;62, p.;.
1. 8onathan "erkey, The Formation of Islam, +..0, p./6.
11 *gh 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, +..6, p.06+.
1+ Ibid. p.0;.
10 "erkey, The Formation of Islam, p./:.
12 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.0;.
2 Christine Vandor
1ne of the main practices in!ol!ed in the politics of traditional tribal Arabia was
condcting raids for booty on either commercial cara!ans, settled commnities or other
tribes. Gha!" was, as 9assner and "onner explain, a 'time#honored prsit' that
in!ol!ed the con$ering of others in order to sr!i!e. It was an essential component in
inter#tribal relations in the Arabian peninsla and played a ma5or role in the hierarchy of
the anarchical pre#Islamic state
. 1nce the tribes were nited nder the banner of Islam,
the pressre on leaders to find an otlet for this complsion was enormos. Copled
with the 4oran's exhortation to 5ihad, that Mslims mst strggle against nbelie!ers
the nited Mslim state had a new enemy and expansion and con$est beyond the
Arabian frontier was ine!itable. ,he first raids by Mslim armies on non Arab lands
were, therefore, primarily dri!en by a redirection of Gha!" and were intended as
con$ests for the collection of spoils. ,he notion of appropriating foreign lands for the
prpose of expanding the growing Islamic state was a reslt of this initial stage, rather
than the case of its expansion into the Middle East and beyond
Another essential factor in the earlier con$ests that led to the striking and
sdden expansion of Islam was the Arab armies abilities to mo!e, and mo!e $ickly. As
tribal warriors of an inhospitable desert en!ironment, the men were accstomed to
sr!i!ing and fighting with !ery little in the way of food, water and general comfort on
their campaigns. =nlike other organised armies, they had no spply trains bt rather
carried their spplies with them on horseback or pillaged from the towns and !illages
they con$ered. ,his meant that they were highly mobile, and able to tra!el great
distances which aided in the speed of the armies ad!ancement across the Middle East
>hen Arab armies in!aded new areas, they generally did not massacre the
existing poplations, and nless they encontered persistent opposition did not destroy
or take o!er property. As the early con$erors saw Islam as an exclsi!ely Arab
religion, there was no attempt at forced con!ersions bt rather the con$ered peoples
were encoraged to contine in their cltre and expressions of faith nder the new
Islamic rle. )enerally speaking, as Islamic rle expanded, the nati!e poplations were
13 9assner and "onner, Islam in the Middle Ages, p.;..
1/ "erkey, The Formation of Islam, p.60.
1: 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.061.
3 Christine Vandor
gi!en the choice between con!ersion to Islam along with all it's rights and
responsibilities, or sbmission to Islamic rle with the freedom to practice their religion
nder payment of a poll tax. As these terms were considered manageable by most non#
Arab societies, Islam's peacefl expansion by way of it's ability to maintain peace was
therefore crcial to it's sccess
. Adding to this sccess, when Arabs did begin to settle
in the con$ered lands, for their own reasons, they sally did so in separate
settlements. ,his had the effect of allowing the existing poplations to carry on in mch
the same way as they had before the in!asion and alle!iated the problems associated
with mixing of two different cltral and religios grops in the small cities and
As a religion, mch of Islam's stories, practices, ritals, prayers and traditions
were familiar to both Christians and 8ews and therefore acceptance of it was not as
problematic as it wold ha!e been in the case of a belief system more foreign to them
sch as *indism or "ddhism
. Many did in fact con!ert to Islam de to the ease of
transition from one tradition to the other, and the ones that did not were sally content
to sbmit to Mslim rle becase, generally speaking, they were not socially
marginalised becase of their faith. Mslims saw themsel!es as holding the final
re!elation of the prophecies gi!en to first to Abraham, Moses and 8ess and therefore
were not ot to destroy these religions bt rather to 'perfect' them. ,he new Mslim
rlers left mch of the go!ernmental strctres in place, as well as those in positions of
administration, and in many instances their rle spelled stability and strctre in lands
that had sffered nder the crmbling "y%antine empire for decades
Apart from the organisation of Arab forces and the natre of their con$ests, the
depleted and impecnios state of the lands and empires into which they srged was
perhaps the most fndamental factor in the breathtaking speed of Islam's early
expansion. ,o begin with, e!idence sggests that the Mediterranean world at the time of
the Arab con$ests had not yet experienced re#poplation from the bbonic plage that
1; Esposito, Islam the Straight Path, p.0;.
+. 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.060.
+1 Ibid. p.06/.
++ Ibid p.06/.
/ Christine Vandor
spread throgh the entire region from 32.A?
. ,his meant that whole areas that had
once been thri!ing were essentially empty, and with fewer nmbers than in pre!ios
generations, walled !illages and cities were not generally manned, and therefore nable
to offer strong resistance to a determined enemy sch as the encroaching Arab forces.
-elated to this demographic decline, the drawn ot and extended wars between
the Christian "y%antine and the &ersian (asanian empires had left both sides politically,
economically and militarily exhasted. "y /+.A? &ersians forces had control of the
pre!iosly "y%antine regions of (yria, Egypt and Asia Minor, bt were sbse$ently
pshed back by the armies of emperor *eraclis. *e came to leadership nder strained
circmstances and had the 5ob of restoring stability after the ineffecti!e military
administration of the tyrant &hocas which cased extensi!e internal trmoil
. Mch of
the empire was ra!aged, and both sides were sffering. In the region of Anatolia, for
instance, stdies re!eal that people likely abandoned the cities of the plains to take
refge in the montains from the incessant barrage of &ersian forces. In locales sch as
these, -oman rle was only restored in theory and from archaeological sr!eys it
becomes apparent from this time on there was no militarily presence and no attempt to
re#establish any political strctres
As an example of the politically weakened position of both empires, and perhaps
becase they did not expected an attack from organised Arabian forces, both sides
abandoned their desert frontiers, lea!ing them in the hands of, ironically, nomadic tribes
that held only loose alliances to protect those borders
. ,hese were easily con$ered.
,he internal tensions of both empires, copled with the !lnerable position inhabitants
were placed in de to the lack of defence, reslted in the general attitde of non#
resistance on the part of most. As 4ennedy notes, the only regions where Mslim
armies experienced any type of prolonged resistance were in those highland areas sch
as ,ransoxania, Armenia and parts of northern (pain which had always been ot of the
direct administration of the kings and princes in the empires proper
, and were able to
+0 Ibid p.0/6.
+2 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.061.
+3 Ibid. p.0/;.
+/ "erkey, The Formation of Islam, p.31
+6 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.0/;.
6 Christine Vandor
rally together to protect their homelands
. As the Mslim expansion contined and
Islamic rle completely replaced that of the &ersian and -oman within ten years
non#resistant attitde remained, and there is no e!idence that the general poplations
e!er tried to organise themsel!es to o!erthrow Mslim rle
. 1n the contrary, and most
likely de to the impo!erished position of the poplace becase of "y%antine#(asanian
conflicts, the Islamic state was in fact welcomed by many, and it's contined expansion
External factors sch as these were pi!otal in Islam's expansions. Althogh at
first the Arab con$ests were dri!en by a tribal mentality and desire for booty, it soon
became clear that gi!en the instability of the lands into which they came expansion of
the Islamic state was the next important step. ,herefore, the timing of the con$ests
when crrent rling empires were already in decline was essential for de!eloping Islam
otside of Arabian borders. Mhammad had laid the grondwork by niting tribal
Arabia nder the Mslim banner throgh a series of campaigns that reslted in
allegiance to the Islamic state. 'rom there the Arab forces, strong with self#reliant
warriors, $ickly con$ered lands otside Arabia and began to set p Mslim rle
throghot the regions. Acceptance of new rlers bringing a faith that was not entirely
foreign and who did not generally massacre and ensla!e the nati!e poplations bt
rather encoraged them to contine in their traditions worked to stabilised entire
regions. ,his ensred frther allegiance from non#Arab peoples and helped in the spread
of Islamic rle across the Middle East and beyond.
+: Ibid. p.0/;.
+; Esposito, Islam the Straight Path, p.0:.
0. 4ennedy, The Great Arab Conuests, p.0/;.
: Christine Vandor
"erkey, 8onathan The Formation of Islam, Cambridge, Cambridge =ni!ersity &ress,
Espirato, 8ohn 9. Islam# the straight $ath %&
ed.', 1xford, 1xford =ni!ersity &ress,
*odgson, Marshall ).(. The Venture of Islam vol. 2, Chicago, =ni!ersity of Chicago
4ennedy, *gh The Great Arab Conuests#(o" the S$read of Islam Changed the
)orld "e live in, &hiladelphia, ?a Capo &ress, +..6.
9assner, 8acob < "onner, Michael Islam in the Middle Ages, California, &raeger, +.1..
Montefiore, (imon (ebag, Jerusalem#The *iogra$h+, @ew Aork, Alfred A.4nopf, +.11.
-odinson, Maxime Muhammad, @ew Aork, ,aris &ark, +..+.
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