Lecture 14: Islam expands, 632-950

In the last lecture we considered the Muhammad’s historical context and the course of his career as Prophet and political unifier. After Muhammad’s death in 632, however, his followers faced the problem of defining their community. Should they continue as a single community with one leader, or should they revert to their original tribal organizations? After difficult discussions the early Muslims decided on having a single leader, and the prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who had been an early supporter, was named Muhammad’s first successor. In Arabic the word for successor is khalifa, from which comes the term caliph, which was used to describe Muhammad’s successors as leaders of the Islamic community.
Abu Bakr immediately confronted a political problem: although most of central Arabia transferred its loyalty from Muhammad to Bakr, communities on the fringes reestablished local control, both religious and political. Some areas claimed that they would remain believers, in spite of their refusal to pay taxes to Bakr. Other communities flirted with returning to their earlier systems of belief. Still, in other areas competing prophets arose. Bakr attacked all the wayward communities and defeated them in what was called the Apostasy Wars, sending armed forces into Yemen, Nejd, and Yamama. Bakr used an interesting psychological tactic: he attacked wavering tribes first, thus helping his army to increase its size before attacking truly dangerous opponents, such as Musaylima, the “false prophet” of Yamama. By 634, after making further campaigns in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Oman, Bakr’s troops brought the entire Arabian Peninsula under control. The trained cadre of fighters that Bakr developed in the Apostasy Wars was the foundation of later Islamic expansion, since it turned into a powerful army that was led by a core of devoted followers. For the first time in the history of Arabia, the various tribes and towns on the peninsula were united into a single political entity.
The combination of political unity with religious fervor sent the Arabs on a path of mass conquest. The early conquests occurred mostly during the reign of the second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-44), whom Abu Bakr had selected as his successor, and though the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644-56), who also gathered many new territories. During these two reigns, the caliphs sent their forces against both the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. In the northwest they attacked Byzantine armies in Palestine and Syria. These areas were already home to many Arabic-speaking tribes, so the process of conquest was not unwelcome. In 636, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, who had just defeated the Sasanians, responded to these early incursions by sending a great army to the Yarmuk valley, where it was destroyed. This battle finished Byzantine resistance in the region and soon all of Syria and Palestine were under Islamic control. The sole exceptions were a few coastal cities that could be supplied by sea. Syria then became a base for a series of Arab incursions into Armenia, northern Mesopotamia, and southern Anatolia. By 642, the Arabs wrested control of Egypt, the empire’s breadbasket, away from Constantinople.
At the same time, Arab armies turned on the Sasanian Empire, attacking regions in southern Iraq. The Sasanians were no more effective in thwarting the Arabs than had been the Byzantines. In 637, the Sasanian army was destroyed at Kadisya in southern Iraq, which opened the entire region to further expansion. From there, Arab armies headed to Khuzestan and Azerbaijan, while also sending armies into the Iranian highlands. By the mid-650s, Arab armies controlled an empire that stretched from Yemen to Armenia, from the Sudan to Libya, from Mesopotamia into Anatolia, and from Armenia into the Caucasus. This empire had a unique politico-religious foundation. Although the Arab warriors were believers, and they saw their mission as jihad, the militant effort to spread Muhammad’s religious message to the world of the Devil, they merely subjected conquered populations to their new political order. Unlike in Charlemagne’s case, or in the later Reconquista in Spain, the new Islamic regimes never required that people convert to the new religion, if they were already peoples of the book—that is, Jews and Christians. The new Islamic regime merely collected a head tax form members of those these approved religions. Payment of such a tax gave the subject communities the right to worship as they always had. Pagans and Zoroastrians, however, enjoyed no such privileges and were coerced into converting to Islam.
In order to understand the rapidity of the conquest, we need to consider the social and political structures of this new state more carefully. First, the Islamic state was a classic empire, with an Arab elite settling in conquered territories to rule the masses without necessarily assimilating into them. This elite based its power on the nomadic tribes from northern and central Arabia. These tribes had transformed themselves into what amounted to a top-notch standing army. This army was based in various garrisons around the Middle East such as Kufa, Basra, Fustat, and Marv that all later became important new cities. The movement of these troops was not like that of the barbarian invasions in Europe, or the later Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century; the Arab caliphs directed these military forces centrally, both destroying existing regimes and using their political power to create new bureaucratic systems. The results were crucial for the region. The Sasanian Empire was completely wiped out and the Byzantines were pushed back on their heels. The new government brought with it a wholly new religious system that excluded almost all others. This religious structure guided and supported the rise of a new economic class. The wealth that had been concentrated in Byzantine or Sasanian hands was now transferred to a new Arab class. This situation was important for the later spread of Islam, as new economic structures created incentives for the conversion of subject peoples. There was no need to use the force that characterized the European clash with pagans, since over time the desire to join the new political elite became overwhelming.
Related to the development of an Arab Muslim elite in the Middle East was the problem of political leadership. The choice of the first three caliphs as leaders did not resolve the problem of political legitimacy, since their power remained based in their tribes and was wielded informally. When the perception arose among some of the Arab believers that the third caliph Uthman was using his power illegitimately the religious and political overtones of the debate broke open into a civil war. Part of the problem was that by the mid-sixth century Arab armies had reached the limits of the “developed” world, and it became increasingly difficult to steal large quantities of wealth and to take slaves for the new empire. In this context, and for reasons that are not clear, the perception arose that Uthman was favoring his family members in the distribution of financial favors. In 656, discontent broke open into rebellion and the caliph was murdered, opening the door to a period of chaos known as the First Civil War (656-661). The Islamic world’s tribal roots were laid bare here, as the various heads of major families within the Quraysh battled for supremacy. The ensuing battle was momentous for the history of Islam, because here the basic sects that characterize modern Islam appeared for the first time.
After Uthman was murdered, a group of Believers in Medina chose Ali ibn Abi Talib as the next caliph. Ali was both cousin and son-in-law to the prophet, which gave him certain familial legitimacy, as he was of the Hashim clan. Uthman’s relatives, however, who were of the rival Umayyad clan, followed the banner of the Umayyad Muawiyah. They in turn joined not only with some of Muhammad’s other relatives, including the Prophet’s favorite wife, Aishah, but also with leading figures in the Quraysh tribe to challenge Ali’s claim. A battle ensued near modern Basra, called “Battle of the Camel,” between Ali’s supporters and his challengers, in which the challengers were defeated. Ali’s supporters or shiat Ali— from which comes the term Shia, or Shiites—established their power center at Kufa, while Muawiyah retreated to his bases in Syria. Ali’s troops moved north to offer battle, but both sides decided that it was too awkward to go to war against believers and retreated to await an arbiter’s decision. Neither side accepted the results of the arbitration, which meant the war continued.
Ali’s political position had, however, already been weakened by the withdrawal of a key religious group from his coalition, known as the Kharijites. The Kharijites were a very austere sect within Islam that emphasized absolute religious observance. They had openly supported the rebellion against Uthman, due to his supposed impiety, and may have believed that if Ali cut a deal with the Umayyads then they would be sacrificed. Nonetheless, Ali’s armies responded to the withdrawal of support by massacring the Kharijites at Nahrawan. This event turned many people against Ali, because the Kharijites were well known and respected for their piety. The remaining Kharijites did not, of course, simply accept the massacre, but plotted Ali’s murder in response. In 661, an assassin killed Ali, bringing the period of civil war to an end. (Another Kharijite assassin had tried to kill Muawiyah, but was thwarted.) Since there was now only one claimant to the throne, the majority of Believers agreed to accept the new caliph, which marked the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750). Muawiyah’s reign was both stable and prosperous. He managed to keep both the Shiites and the Kharijites under control and began to send Arab armies on raids in neighboring territories.
Muawiyah’s ascension to the caliphate had not, however, resolved any of the fundamental issues raised by the First Civil War. Thus, at his death in 680 another war, officially the Second Civil War (680-692), broke out. This war was an almost exact replay of the first, in that the same groups were competing, only the next generation carried on the fight. Muawiyah’s son Yazid (r.680-83) led the fight from Damascus until his death, when another Umayyad Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 685-705) took over. The Shiites rose up from their stronghold of Kufa, claiming that only a descendant of Ali could be caliph, and putting their support behind Ali’s son al-Husayn. In 680, al-Husayn and his entire family were massacred by Umayyad troops at Karbala, but the Shiites continued their struggle under the leadership of a man named al-Mukhtar, who claimed to be acting in the name of another of Ali’s sons.
At the same time as the Shiites rose up, another heir to the past returned to claim power. Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr (624-692), who was the son of one of Muawiyah’s early supporters, established himself in Mecca, offering a significant challenge to the Umayyads. In addition, the Kharijites made a comeback, rising up in various parts of Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. It was only the concerted and ruthless action of al-Malik and his right-hand man al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf that allowed the Umayyads to pacify Iraq and Arabia. This process of unification was, however, bloody and left permanent scars on Islam. Before his death Yazid allowed his army to crush a rebellion in Medina and even besieged Mecca, which caused a fire that destroyed part of the Kaaba. The Shiites were enraged by the slaughter of their chosen heir al-Husayn and his entire family, and the remembrance of his betrayal is fundamental to Shiite religious rituals still today. As a result, very soon after al-Husayn’s martyrdom the Shiities began to see themselves as a distinct subgroup within Islam. Thus, the two Civil Wars created the basic outlines of modern Islam of Sunni, Shiities, and the much smaller Kharijites, with each group justifying its position through a highly ritualized memory of these political events.
It is that this point that we can begin to shift gears and look outward. By 700, the caliphate’s internal political arrangements were set, along with all the strengths and weaknesses that they implied. Before that time Islam had been a loosely organized community of Believers who rallied around a central ideology, rather than a specific state structure. The two civil wars changed all of that. From this point forward Islam would have a centralized authority that guided both religion and politics, and after 692 the followers of Muhammad began to see themselves ever more clearly as Muslims, a group of monotheists, following Muhammad’s teachings, that was distinct from Christians and Jews.
The Umayyad dynasty fell in 750 to the Abbasids, who were descendants of the Prophet’s uncle al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (ca. 566-ca. 653). They shifted the empire’s capital from Damascus to Baghdad, but the caliphate that had been cemented by the Umayyads persisted in its basic structure. First, the caliphate continued to be militarily aggressive, as the Umayyads repeatedly attacked Constantinople in 669, 674-80, and 716-717, while also raiding repeatedly in the Anatolian peninsula and moving across North Africa. This aggression had two purposes: it was a propaganda victory to be seen taking the war to the infidel, and it brought in more booty and slaves that could be distributed around the empire. Second, the caliphate became a central ideological motivator for Islam’s armies. Without the caliph to direct and organize Muslims’ energies, such a great Muslim crusade would not have been possible.
The caliphate’s development as a politico-religious institution, thus, helps us to explain Islam’s startling military successes during the eighth and ninth centuries. During this period the Muslims finally expelled the last Byzantine outposts from North Africa, taking Carthage and Morocco. The taking of Morocco and Libya was of crucial importance, since it aided in the conversion of North Africa’s nomadic Berber population. In 711, a Muslim general named Tariq ibn Ziyad led an army of Berbers across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. Within a few years, Muslims controlled almost all of Spain up to the Pyrenees and raided deeply in France, before being turned back by Frankish armies. During the ninth century, the Abbasids’ representatives in Tunisia, the Aghlabids, began raiding in Italy, landing in Sicily in 827 and maintaining a continuous presence there until the arrival of the Normans in the mid-eleventh century. In the east, Umayyad governors extended their reach over Iran and moved into central Asia and parts of India—where Islam has remained, in spite of subsequent counterattacks.
It is important to recognize, however, that Islam’s imperial expansion is not coterminous with the expansion of its religion. In fact, Islamic governments were not keen on expanding the religion’s boundaries, since infidel populations were a source of income. All members of other faiths that did not wish to convert were required to pay a poll tax that guaranteed the freedom to worship. The work of spreading Islam was really the work of merchants and preachers, who moved throughout the empire spreading Muhammad’s teachings. Unlike in Christian Europe forced conversions of the infidel were rare, and it was only after 850 that Muslims began to be the majority within the Islamic Empire. Conversion of native populations was a slow process, as people joined the new religion for a variety of reasons that included social and economic incentives, as well as the basic appeal of many of Islam’s teachings. In this context, it cannot, however, be ignored that the empire’s Jews and Christians suffered increasing persecution throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, with persecution reaching new depths during the Christian Crusades.
In spite, or maybe because of this success, the caliphate continued to suffer from political instability. The long-standing enmity of the Shiites and Kharijites persisted through the Umayyad period. But the Umayyads also made enemies of many recent converts to Islam by favoring Arab Muslims over other ethnic groups. In addition to simmering religious dissent the Umayyads also confronted a serious agricultural crisis during the eighth century, which hurt tax revenues and required draconian measures that exacerbated public opposition. This led to an uprising in 750, in which the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads and their leader Abu l-Abbas al-Saffah was recognized as caliph. It took some time and effort to consolidate power, but the Abbasids were securely in ensconced by 756. This family was to occupy the caliphate continuously until 1258, when invading Mongol armies deposed the last caliph and abolished the institution. Real Abbasid power only lasted for two centuries, however, as by 950 power had devolved to such an extent that Islam was divided into rival kingdoms, with the Buyids controlling Baghdad, the Ghaznavids holding most of Iran, and the Fatimids controlling Egypt and North Africa. In addition, an Umayyad kingdom appeared in Spain, founded by a prince who had escaped the Abbasid massacre.
Thus, we can identify two distinct stages in the Islamic empire’s political history. The first is the tremendous military expansion of the period 632 to 700. The second is its gradual dissolution into competing political entities between 700 and 950. The irony is that Islamic culture flourished in the period of political decline, as competing courts, particularly the one in Córdoba Spain, created a rich variety of Islamic art, literature, and philosophy that would, one day, be Europe’s education. We cannot trace the development of this world, but Islam’s political decline opened the door for a European counter-attack, the Crusades, which we will discuss in a future lecture.