|Muhammad meets Gabriel|
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, having around 1.3 billion followers, but, it is one of the most misunderstood religions in the west. Originating in the Arab peninsula around 610 CE when the Prophet Muhammad received a revelation from the angel Gabriel, (the angel which appeared to the Virgin Mary), Islam became a dominant force in the peninsula, then the Middle East, and then the world. With this World History post we'll look at the course of Islam starting from the foundation all the way up until the end of the Rashidun, or the first four caliphs. However, before we look at Islam we have to first look at pre-Islamic Arabia.
Prior to the arrival of Islam the Arabian peninsula was not a unified place. Although Arabic was the dominant language in the region there were various other languages floating about, Persian was one of these languages. The Arabian peninsula was mostly tribal with tribal loyalties surpassing any loyalty to a central government. Bedouin nomads were extremely common as well as Bedouin farmers. There were relatively few urban areas with Mecca being one of these cities, which in turn acted as a melting pot for the tribes and their various beliefs. Various religions were prevalent in the peninsula with many tribes having their own polytheistic religion, (often descended from the ancient Mesopotamian religions), while in urban areas Christians and Jews were prevalent. In Mecca the Kaaba, currently the most sacred mosque in the world, was a holy site home to various polytheistic religious icons. It was in areas like Mecca that tribes often met and traded with one another. However, to the north between 602 and 628 the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire went to war, again, which created a political vacuum in the north of the peninsula as the empires swept their armies over the small client states, (the Ghassanids in Syria and the Lakhmids in Iraq), leaving the area weakened.
The Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 to the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. His father had died before he was born and, both his mother and grandfather died in his childhood which meant that he was raised by his uncle Abu Talib. Muhammad had an honest and trustworthy nature which meant that he soon became the business manager for an elderly widow, Khadija, in his twenties, and he went on to marry Khadija. In 610 while praying in a cave named Hira on Mount Jabal al-Nour Islamic tradition says that the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad and made him recite verses which would become the Qu'ran. Distressed he went home and was consoled by Khadija who became the first convert to Islam. Thus Islam had been born.
The Prophet Muhammad, 610-632
|A 16th Century Turkish depiction of Muhammad|
Muhammad started preaching in Mecca and had various converts among his friends and relatives, including his uncle Abu Talib. We shall later get onto the teachings of Islam but we first need to know some of what the Prophet Muhammad preached to understand why he got many converts, and to understand why Muslims became ostracized from society. The Qu'ran called for strict monotheism, Islam means 'submission to the will of God', as well as taking care of the weaker peoples in society with 2:177 saying:
True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west - but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance - however much he himself may cherish - it - upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer.
This upset many of the elite in Mecca. Muhammad's calls to improve the lives of women, orphans. beggars and slaves which would seriously disrupt the traditional social order of Mecca. On top of this Muhammad preaching strict monotheism in an area where many polytheists traded made the elite wary as well. One final thing which upset many of the elite was Muhammad's formation of the ummah, or Islamic community, which called for loyalty to fellow Muslims regardless of tribe. The authorities of Mecca, and Muhammad's own Quraysh tribe, started oppressing Muslims with the Quraysh saying to Abu Talib 'O Abu Talib, your nephew has cursed our gods, insulted our religion, mocked our way of life, and accused our forefathers of error'. Both Khadija and Abu Talib died in 619 which removed Muhammad's protectors in the eyes of the Quraysh. In 622 Muhammad's position was growing worse which caused him to leave Mecca with many of his followers to go to Yathrib, the future Medina, with his followers. On his way he made many friends among Jews and Christians. His flight from Mecca is the start of the Islamic calendar and this era in Islam's history is referred to as the hijra. While in Medina Muhammad created the Constitution of Medina which created an alliance between the Muslims and Medinan tribes, as well as the inclusion of Jews and Christians into the ummah. During the hijra Muhammad started differentiating Islam from Judaism and Christianity by having his followers pray in the direction of Mecca instead of Jerusalem. From 624 and 630 there were various battles between the Muslims and the Meccans who tried to crush the young religion. Eventually in 630 Muhammad managed to capture Mecca with virtually no bloodshed. Muhammad declared an amnesty for all past offences of the Meccans except for ten men and women who were guilty of either murder or starting war although some of them were pardoned. Polytheistic statues in the Kaaba were destroyed while Christian motives were spared.
After 630 Muhammad established his capital in Medina and began solidifying Arabia. There were several battles against hostile tribes but many voluntarily chose to join the ummah seeing the benefits of being able to trade in the urban markets. There was conflict, however, as many tribes did not want to lose their independence. As a result Muhammad created a compromise: they could be independent as long as they recognized Medina as their sovereign, did not attack Muslims or their allies, and paid the religious levy. Muhammad also brought in some tribes into the ummah via marriage. In 632 Muhammad made his final pilgrimage to Mecca where he proclaimed 'know that every Muslim is a Muslim's brother, and that the Muslims are brethren'. He would die the same year in the house of his favorite wife 'A'isha. Within ten years Muhammad had managed to change Arabian society. Piety instead of birth placed your position in society, women gained more rights, (including being able to actually divorce), a new religion dominated the region, there was a new urban elite, and society had become more equal than it had been before, (although it was still not equal). Before we look at the first caliph we have to first look at what Islam actually teaches.
According to Muslims the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet of God, Allah in Arabic. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all prophets of God but Muhammad is the final prophet. Muslim theology also says that the Qu'ran is the literal words of God rather than the interpretation of God's words with the other prophets. According to mainly Sunni Muslims to lead a good life you have to live by the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah, Salat, Zakat, Sawm and Hajj. The Shahadah is the testimony 'There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God'. Salat is prayer five times a day in the direction of the Kaaba. Zakat is alms-giving to the poor or indebted, (as well as freeing slaves), although both the Qu'ran and a hadith urges Muslims to voluntarily give more in what is called the Sadaqah. Sawm is fasting from food, drink, tobacco and sex during the month of Ramadam unless if you are pre-pubescent, ill, menstruating, nursing or pregnant. Finally there is Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it has to take at least once in their life. Other than the Qu'ran there are 7,275 hadiths which are texts which are words, reports and texts directly from the Prophet Muhammad which a Muslim is meant to live by. However, many of these are repeats, and quite a few are discounted due to their authenticity being in question. For example, the hadith exempting menstruating women from fasting is very authentic so many Muslims follow it whereas the 72 virgins hadith has little authenticity so many disregard it. Finally we have sharia. This is basically a legal framework for people living in an area whose legal system is based on Islamic teaching. Over the centuries there have been various debates about how vigorous this should be implemented.
After Muhammad's death although there was no religious vacuum, (Muhammad was the final prophet in the eyes of Muslims), but there was a political one. What followed was the appointment of a caliph; a caliph was a steward who led the Islamic community who was originally chosen by a consultation. Abu Bakr was the father of Muhammad's wife 'A'isha and was seen as a good successor. He was Muhammad's father-in-law, he was Quraysh, he was an early convert, he went with Muhammad to Medina, he led prayers during Muhammad's last illness, he was diplomatic and, he knew the tribes. However, many wanted Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, to succeed him which was the early signs of the Sunni/Shia split, (Shias feel that Muhammad appointed a successor with Ali while Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not pick a successor. Since then more differences have emerged). Abu Bakr continued the expansion of Islam by recording the Qu'ran in writing, ended several uprisings after several tribes refused to pay taxes, (although the Banu Hanifa declared someone called Musaylima a prophet), and, started the military campaigns. Muhammad had sent troops had sent troops to secure the road to Syria which Abu Bakr continued as well as conquering all of present day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and the UAE. He also put into practice the Ten Islamic Rules of War during these conflicts, (something which Muhammad had started) which included not to forcibly convert people; not to kill women, children or the elderly; not to kill monks or those worshiping; not to mutilate people; do not burn people; do not destroy towns etc. Abu Bakr, however, in 634 caught a fever which he did not recover from and died. Before he died he did appoint a successor in the form of his closest adviser, Umar.
|The Caliphate at the end of Umar's reign|
Umar was good at two things: administration and conquering. Umar divided the caliphate into provinces ruled by a governor which allowed them some autonomy. Quite often empires fall because they cannot effectively administer a large territory from one center. He would have canals built for irrigation and, organized the zakat to get to not only poor Muslims but also Christians and Jews, (he even lived in a mud hut to be close to the poor). Although he did expel Jews from Najran and Khaybar he did later allow them to live in Jerusalem which they had been barred from living in while it was under Byzantine rule. One common thing among the early caliphs was that you did not have to convert to Islam which Umar continued, although wealthy Christians and Jews had to pay the jizya, or poll tax. However, Umar is best known for his conquests. Taking advantage of the wars between the Byzantines and Sassanids leaving them weakened he went to war against both. His troops quickly spread over Iraq and Syria, and after capturing Damascus in 637 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius chose not to put any more armies into the field. Heraclius then fled to Anatolia after the quick capture of Aleppo, Antioch and Qinnasrin. Meanwhile, in the south in 638 Jerusalem fell in a curious way. Patriarch Sophronius would only surrender to the caliph directly which meant Umar had to visit Jerusalem personally. The following year the caliphate invaded Egypt which fell in 642. Following Egypt's capture Umar began a full scale invasion of the Sassanid Empire and the empire weakened through years of war against the Byzantines was almost fully conquered when peace was made in 644. Umar had also the advantage of not converting the conquered. Although the Muslims weren't entirely seen as liberators they were still seen positively. For example, Coptic and Monophysite Christians in Egypt refused to answer Byzantine levees due to the ruler trying to force Orthodoxy on them. However, in 644 a Persian slave, Piruz Nahavandi, assassinated Umar due to him annexing Persia.
Uthman succeeded Umar, as chosen by a committee, but his reign was split into six years of prosperity and six years of decay. In 642 his armies destroyed the remains of the Iranian army at Nihavand in the Zagros mountains destroying the Sassanid Empire by 650. He also expanded the navy to fight the Byzantines winning a major battle, the Battle of the Masts off the Lycian coast, in 655. The Kingdom of Nubia was also added to the caliphate under Uthman. He also managed to successfully standardize the Qu'ran. However, he made some blunders including allowing the sale of conquered land which Umar had forbidden. There were many grievances in Egypt and Syria which all culminated in his house being under siege by rebels and his eventual assassination by his own guards while reading the Qu'ran in 656.
After Uthman's death Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, finally became caliph after waiting over twenty years. Unfortunately from him the memory of his opposition to Abu Bakr, and the issues from Uthman's reign meant that he was not in a good situation. Shortly after the assassination of Uthman and Ali's succession Muhammad's wife, 'A'isha, as well as two companions of Muhammad, Talha and Zabair, revolted in protest over Ali's succession, and the lack of revenge for Uthman's murder. At Basra at the Battle of the Camels, (named due to the intense fighting around 'A'isha's camel), Ali won while 'A'isha was captured and, Talha and Zabair were killed. Ali was blamed for Muslim shedding Muslim blood. Ali, however, would then face what is called the First Fitna as various tribes wanted more autonomy. On January 20th 661 while in his capital of Kufa Ali was assassinated. His son was hastily declared caliph except that one of the leading rebels, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan of the Umayyad dynasty, was also declared caliph. Not wanting further civil war Ali's son abdicated.
Following Ali's assassination the age of the Rashidun ended. The Rashidun were seen as the greatest caliphs by Sunni Muslims. Here the Sunni/Shia split can be seen. Sunnis view all four caliphs as Rashidun while Shias acknowledge that the first three were holy, they see Ali as the first true caliph. After Ali's son abdicated the Umayyad Caliphate was born which would expand the caliphate across north Africa, into Iberia, and into India. It also started the trend of the caliph hereditary instead of being elected. Now we will leave the origins of Islam to go into Europe and look at the successor to Rome which fought the Rashidun: the Byzantines.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
-The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate by Hugh Kennedy
-A Chronology of Islamic History, 570-1000 CE by H.U. Rahman
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
For a full list of World History posts please see here
For a full list of World History posts please see here