Islam (part 4)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

The Spread Of Islam

The Islamic state expanded very rapidly after the death of Muhammad
through remarkable successes both at converting unbelievers to Islam and by
military conquests of the Islamic community's opponents. Expansion of the
Islamic state was an understandable development, since Muhammad himself had
successfully established the new faith through conversion and conquest of
those who stood against him. Immediately after the Prophet's death in 632, Abu
Bakr, as the first Caliph, continued the effort to abolish paganism among the
Arab tribes, and also to incorporate Arabia into a region controlled by the
political power of Medina. United by their faith in God and a commitment to
political consolidation, the merchant elite of Arabia succeeded in
consolidating their power throughout the Arabian peninsula and began to launch
some exploratory offensives north toward Syria.

Expansion Under The First Four Caliphs

During the reigns of the first four caliphs (632-661), Islam spread
rapidly. The wars of expansion were also advanced by the devotion of the
faithful to the concept of jihad. Muslims are obliged to extend the faith to
unbelievers and to defend Islam from attack. The original concept of jihad did
not include agressive warfare against non-Muslims, but "holy war" was
sometimes waged by Muslims whose interpretation of the Koran allowed them such
latitude. Jihad was directly responsible for some of the early conquests of
Islam outside of the Arabian peninsula.

The Islamic cause was also aided by political upheavals occurring outside
of Arabia. The Muslim triumphs in the Near East can be partly accounted for by
the long series of wars between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Earlier
Byzantine victories had left both sides exhausted and open to conquest.
Moreover, the inhabitants of Syria and Egypt, alienated by religious dissent
and resenting the attempts of the Byzantine Empire to impose Christianity on
the population, were eager to be free of Byzantine rule. In 636, Arab armies
conquered Syria. The Muslims then won Iraq from the Persians and, within ten
years after Muhammad's death, subdued Persia itself. The greater part of Egypt
fell with little resistance in 640 and the rest shortly afterward. By the end
of the reigns of the first four caliphs, Islam had vastly increased its
territory in the Near East and Africa.

The new conquests of Islam were governed with remarkable efficiency and
flexibility. The centralization of authority typical of military organization
aided in the incorporation of new peoples. Unbelievers in the conquered
territories became increasingly interested in the new religion and accepted
Islam in great numbers. In addition to the obvious power of the religious
message of Islam, the imposition of a personal tax on all non-Muslims
encouraged many to become converts. Contrary to exaggerated accounts in
western Europe of the forceful imposition of Islam upon conquered peoples,
Jews and Christians outside of Arabia enjoyed toleration because they
worshiped the same God as the Muslims; many non-Muslims participated in the
Islamic state and prospered financially and socially.

Islam was and remains one the most effective religions in removing
barriers of race and nationality. Apart from a certain privileged position
allowed Arabs, distinctions were mostly those of economic rank in the early
days of conquest. The new religion converted and embraced peoples of many
colors and cultures. This egalitarian feature of Islam undoubtedy aided its

Arab Domination Under The Umayyads

The first three caliphs of Islam were chosen in consultation with the
elders and leaders of the Islamic community, and a pattern was established for
selecting the caliph from the Karaysh tribe of Mecca. The fourth caliph, Ali,
who was the son-in-law of Muhammad, was devoted to Islam and convinced that
leadership of the Islamic community should remain in the family of the
Prophet. The followers of Ali were later called Shii or Shiites (after
Shiat-u-Ali, or "party of Ali"), and believed that the first three caliphs had
been usurpers to legitimate power. Ali and his followers were opposed first by
Muslims under the leadership of Muhammad's widow Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr,
and later by the forces of Muawiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of
the third caliph. In 661 Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph, made Damascus his
capital, and founded the Umayyad Dynasty, which lasted until 750. Thus the
caliphate became in fact, although never in law, a hereditary office, not, as
previously, a position filled by election.

Umayyad military campaigns of conquest for the most part were highly
successful. The Umayyad navy held Cyprus, Rhodes, and number of Aegean
islands, which served as bases for annual seaborne attacks on Constantinople
from 674 to 678. With the aid of Greek fire Constantinople was successfully
defended, and the Arab advance was checked for the first time. Westward across
North Africa, however, the Umayyad armies had much greater success. The
Berbers, a warlike nomadic people inhabiting the land between the
Mediterranean and the Sahara, resisted stubbornly but eventually converted to
Islam. The next logical expansion for Islam was across the Strait of Gibraltar
into the weak kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain. The governor of Muslim North
Africa sent his general, Tarik, and an army across the Strait into Spain in
711. Seven years later the kingdom of the Visigoths completely crumbled. The
Muslims advanced across the Pyrenees and gained a strong foothold in southwest
France, where they carried out a major raid to explore the possibility of a
further northward advance. However, they were defeated by Charles Martel near
Tours in 732, in a battle which, together with their defeat by the Byzantine
emperor Leo III in 718, proved decisive in halting their northward expansion
into Europe. Meanwhile the Muslims had been expanding eastward into Central
Asia, and by the eighth century they could claim lands as far as Turkestan and
the Indus valley.

The mainstay of Umayyad dynastic power was the ruling class consisting of
an Arab military aristocracy, who formed a privileged class greatly
outnumbered by non-Arabic converts to Islam - Egyptians, Syrians, Persians,
Berbers, and others. Many of these converted peoples possessed cultures much
more advanced than that of the Arabs, and the economic and cultural life of
the Arab empire came to be controlled by these non-Arab Muslims (mawali).
Because they were not Arab by birth, they were treated as second-class
citizens. High government positions were closed to them. They paid higher
taxes than Arabs, and as soldiers they received less pay and loot than the
Arabs. Resentment grew among the non-Arabic Muslims who objected to their
lesser status as a violation of the Islamic laws of equality. Eventually the
resentment of the mawali helped bring about the downfall of the Umayyads.

[See Expansion Of Islam: The expansion of Islam to 750 AD]

Shia Movement Against The Ruling Group

This resentment also found expression in the religious sphere, where
large numbers of non-Arabic Muslims joined the sect known as the Shia, which
had been forced from power on the accession of the Umayyads. The Shia
continued to regard Ali and his descendants as the rightful rulers of the
Islamic community, and believed that in every age a messiah-like leader would
appear and that he must be obeyed. The Shia also rejected the Sunna, the body
of later tradition concerning Muhammad that was not contained in the Koran;
they insisted on the Koran as the sole and unquestioned authority on the life
and teachings of the Prophet. Though originally an Arab party, the Shia in
time became a general Islamic movement that stood in opposition to the ruling
Arabic dynasty. The Shia evolved into one of the two major groups in Islam.
The majority, called Sunni because they were the "orthodox" perpetrators of
Muhammad's Sunna, or tradition, upheld the principle that the caliph owed his
position to the consent of the Islamic community. The numerical superiority of
the Sunni Muslims has continued to this day.

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