In the seventh century, Islam exploded onto the world scene. In less that a century, the new religion controlled territory from Spain to India. What accounts for this rapid expansion?
There are several elements that coincided to allow Islam to spread throughout the world at such an impressive rate. The most important aspects of the movement were the uniting of the people, the military advantage that they gained.
Muhammad was the leader of the new faith and self-proclaimed prophet that acted as both the political and religious guide of the growing nation. Muhammad understood that it would take great determination and will in order to unite the people into a popular movement within the region. He was an extremely charismatic and authoritative speaker that inspired people to believe as he did. The region was comprised of several tribes of nomads and city dwellers and was largely polytheistic. Muhammad acted to unite these tribes by “replacing the identity and protection of the tribes with a new identity as part of the ummah, the community of believers, who share both a belief in one God and a set of religious practices.”1 He succeeded in expanding the number of his followers through inspired speech devotion to his principles. A large number of the nomadic tribes that he was able to convert were filled with capable warriors who had previously been engaged in intertribal warfare. After conversion to Islam these tribes were able to “unite as a supertribe, inspired by religious fervor… and able to exercise their skills as warriors not against one another but rather against unbelievers.”2 Muhammad’s principles were able to unite a vast array of different ethnicities as well as those that previously worshipped different Gods. His message spread rapidly because the movement of the nomads that he converted inspired people to do the same all over the region. He was able to convince a prominent group of skilled warriors and story tellers to increase the spread of his message to far reaching areas and it united the people in ways that were previously unaccomplished. The message that he preached was also easily understood and reasonable to both Christians and Jews because he was praising the same God that they had grown to worship. This fact is present in the words of Hunt and others, “The monophysite Christians in Syria and Egypt, for example, who had suffered persecution under the Byzantines, were glad to have new Islamic overlords.”3 The Muslim movement was harsh to non-believing polytheistic groups; however, they were tolerant of Christians and Jews so long as they paid special taxes. This religious tolerance increased the potential for successful assimilation of the surrounding cultures. As Hunt and others describe: “Through a combination of force, conversion, and negotiation, Muhammad was able to unite many… Arabic-speaking tribes under his leadership by the time of his death in 632.”4 The unity of force that he achieved allowed him to further the movement through successful military conquest and elimination of those who opposed him.
The successful unification of nomadic and sedentary tribes in Arabia was not adequate enough to understand the far reaching stretch of Islam during the seventh century. Once the religious movement gained considerable favor within the region it began to increase its numbers by accomplishing magnificent defeats of foreign territories. The first reason why these feats were possible is because of the superb fighting skills and devotion that his followers possessed. As hunt and others exclaim: “The Bedouin tribesmen that converted to Islam turned their traditional warrior culture to its cause.”5 These fighters acted with intense obedience and devotion because they believed that they were conducting the will of God himself. This sentiment provided the Muslims with a motivated and capable fighting force. The second reason for the success of the conquest was that they faced a weakened enemy in the north and west. “The Byzantine and Sasnid states were exhausted from fighting each other, and the cities that they fought over were depopulated and demoralized.”6 Due to the fact that their opposition had largely lost the will or capability to fight, it made conquering these territories a relativity easy task. The willingness for Muslims to fight and die for their beliefs against non-believers cannot be underestimated as a central reason for the expansion of the religion.
The growth of Islam continued to thrive after the death of Muhammad. The unity that he instilled within his disciples and followers was extremely intense and the prosperity that they received was seen as divine and righteous. The ability to unity a vast array of ethnicities and tribes into one solidified fighting force enabled him to dominate the surrounding territories and build a culture that has withstood the test of time and continues to flourish today.
- Lynn Hunt and others, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, Vol I to 1740. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 234.
- Ibid, 237.
- Ibid, 237.
- Ibid, 235.
- Ibid, 236.
- Ibid, 237.