Arabian Knights: The rise of Islam

Editors note: Arabian Knights: The rise of Islam is the third in a series of posts about the Crusades. If you’re interested you should start with the first one, which you can find here. Otherwise enjoy.

Muhammad: Islam is born

Muhammad was born in (or near) Mecca in 570AD, and was orphaned shortly after (Silverstein, 2010).

By the time Muhammad was in his forties he claimed that he had begun receiving revelations.

Apparently God had told Gabriel, to tell Muhammad, so that he could tell the rest of the world that the Bible was wrong in some places, but not others.

Importantly, the Hebrews were not God’s chosen people and it was actually the descendants of Ishmael, which conveniently included Muhammad. He was also told that Jesus wasn’t God, he was just a prophet (a prophet who claimed to be God? hmmm…) (Silverstein, 2010, Sonn 2004). But apart from his divine assertions, Christ was right about everything else… I think.

This was the beginning of Islam.

Islam chastised the Jews for claiming that it was heredity that determined divine favour and later on chastised Christians for their libertarian theology and lack of discipline. According to Islam it was actually individual deeds, which were the evidence of total submission to God, and thus the means by which we obtain his favour and salvation. One wonders what he thought of John 14:6 (for clarification on the Christian understanding of the relationship between Grace, Salvation and Good works see my first and second blog posts).

Anyway, his religious beliefs were quite different to the polytheistic beliefs in his region, so in 622 he was forced to leave Mecca. Shortly after this Muhammad moved to Medina (Yathrib) and established Islam more formally there, periodically receiving revelation which was often quite conveniently relevant to Islam’s success at a given time. For example after a period of being told to accept persecution with humility, he was then later told to ‘slay them [the aggressors] wherever you find them, and expel them from where they expelled you’ (2:190).

Over his life, Muhammad exercised force and proselytizing, to convert to Islam. Islam grew quickly as Muhammad united increasing numbers of local Arab tribal leaders who converted to Islam and swore allegiance to Muhammad. His power grew and was eventually recognised by the Meccan nobility, who then acceded to his leadership. By Muhammad’s death in 632 the entire region of Arabia between the persian Gulf and the Red sea was united under Muhammad’s rule (Sonn, 2004).

In 632 Muhammad died rather suddenly, leaving no clear successor, nor any further divine revelation to guide the Islamic community in selecting one. Too bad Allah didn’t see that coming. Many individual tribesman who with political loyalty to Muhammad believed they were no longer subject to his allegiance posthumously (and therefore were no longer obligated to pay taxes). Muhammad’s second in command, Abu Bakr, believed otherwise…

From Muhammad’s death to the height of Islam

“Abu Bakr then led the community in a momentous decision: to bring the tribes that had seceded back into the community by force, if necessary.” – Sonn, 2004.

In the mere two years from the death of Muhammad to the death of Abu Bakr, the ‘war of Apostasy’ (ridda) succeeded in uniting all of Arabia (once again) under the banner of Islam, and setting a precedent of ‘unity by force’, which continued to drive political Islamic expansion into the North and West (Sonn, 2004, Silverstein, 2010).

Decades of war between Byzantines and Persia left their borders war weary and easy targets for Islamic expansion and in from 633-636 despite steadily increasing resistance the Muslims continued to win battles including the major battle of Yarmuk which marked the end of Byzantine occupation in Syria (Stark, 2009).

Islam continued to expand, conquering territories against both Byzantium and Persia, including the Holy Land itself, Jerusalem. From a military/expansionist perspective, the capture of this city was very much par-for-course. After the heavy losses incurred at the battle of Yarmuk, Jerusalem was almost completely defenceless. In less than 5 years after the death of Muhammad, and 3 centuries since emperor Constantine ruled Byzantium, the once capital city of Judah, and the place where Christ was crucified, Jerusalem, was under foreign leadership. Omar captured the city and established Islam, however Christians and Jews were still allowed to keep their faiths (sort of), and they apparently maintained regular contact with the West during Islamic occupation, at least for a while (Barker, 1923).

Islam continued to spread into Egypt and across the entire North African continent, despite well built coastal fortifications and some periodic successes, the coastal provinces of North Africa were overrun by Muslim invaders, in some cases almost completely destroyed. As soon as the Muslims had their hands on a sizeable Navy, Africa was lost and was never recaptured by the Byzantines (Stark, 2009).

In just over a century (632-750), Islam had conquered the vast majority of the Eastern Empire (including once Persian land all the way to the Indian border), North Africa, most of Spain and parts of Southern Italy.

The world went from this:

Byzantine territory 565AD:

A rough outline of Christendom's territory in 565 AD
I really should make my own maps…

To this:

Image result for Map of Islam 750 AD

Abu Bakr’s ‘Unity by force’, resulted in just over 100 years of violent bloodshed, brutal massacres en masse, and the loss of the majority of the Byzantine empire to Islam (don’t forget about Persia). All this is without mentioning the Muslim’s reputation for frequently breaking the rules of engagement.

Fight or flight

So Islam had conquered the entirety of the Byzantine kingdom south and east of the Mediterranean, including the Holy city of Jerusalem. Maybe that’s fine, maybe they should’ve just left it alone after that. Indeed some have suggested they should have. Then can we not just say, Islam should’ve left Byzantium alone in the first place?

This is an ignorant suggestion for a few reasons.

Firstly, it assumes that Islam ‘stopped’ once it conquered Arabia, Syria, Jerusalem, Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, Southern Italy and Sicily and the Mediterranean Islands. There’s no reason at all to think it wouldn’t have just spread, until the entire world from the North Pole to the south was Islamic. Indeed it was spreading and would’ve reached France, and pushed through Constantinople if it weren’t for some key victories by the Byzantines and the French. More on that in a minute.

Secondly, it is often tied up in the belief that Islam was an enlightened, tolerant, fountain of innovation and forward thinking that embraced pluralism and multiculturalism. A place where other cultures and religions could thrive in harmony and alliance with Islam. You might be wondering what happened to all the Christians, Jews, Pagans, Zoroastrians (Persians) and other people’s and religions once the Muslims had control. Well mostly they stayed there, and were permitted to continue practising their religion… as long as they paid a huge tribute for the ‘right’ to ‘freely’ practise their faith (Sonn, 2004). The extent of this freedom is well summarised by this quote from Stark (2009):

Jews and Christians also were prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud-not even in their homes or in churches or synagogues… Muslim authorities often went to great lengths to humiliate and punish dhimmis… Jews and Christians should not ride horses… should wear certain marks of their religion on their costume when among Muslims… nor could they be armed.

Oh and Stark also mentioned the huge taxes. Indeed even many of those who converted to Islam did so for reasons of financial prudence, and valuing their head, even in Arabia (Stark, 2009).

This and more, only got worse as time passed, especially during the reign of Caliph Hakim who destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (imagine Muslims violently invading the Vatican city today and burning down the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel), and then in 1071 the Egyptian Arabs were overrun by the Seljuk Turks who were even worse. Large massacres of Jews and pilgrims were a frequent occurrence right up to the first Crusade.

Not to mention, if you were neither willing to convert to Islam, nor pay through the teeth, then you were not free, nor had the right to practise your faith, you were Dar al-harb, ‘region of warfare’ (Sonn, 2004).

As for their enlightenment, culture and learning, this will be a topic all its own. The point here is this, if you think Islam was a fountain of religious tolerance… you’re simply wrong.

Thirdly, the ‘leave them alone’ mentality assumes that an Islamic world is as capable of maintaining a prosperous and peaceful society as any other. Even for Muslims, life under Islamic rule was no picnic.

A harsh result of Muhammad’s death, was that Islam was left without a leader, or a rigorous (or even vague) political system upon which to build a society and culture effectively. Furthermore is that Islam at the time consisted of a large number of allied tribal groups, where tribalism had been the norm previously.

When Muhammad died, disagreements over who was the successor led to divisions and as time passed civil war became the norm. In fact in areas such as Spain certain Muslim groups would even ally with Christians (such as Charlemagne) against rivals (Stark, 2009).

7th century Islam was an oil canvas of violent conflicts, assassinations, rebellions, revolts, and eventually ideological chasms that polarized Islamic loyalties, loyalties that continue to define and divide Islam even today (think Sunnis and Shiites) (Sonn, 2004).

Islam was very often an intolerant, politically and religiously divided institution. The older and larger it got, the worse it got. Islam was persecuting Jews, Christians and Pagans with increasing severity and it was spreading fast.

Christianity, had its back up against the wall and something had to be done…

Next post: Don’t corner a lion

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All Bible references are taken from, from the ESV version, unless otherwise stated.

All Quran references are taken from

Barker, E. 1923. The Crusades. Oxford University Press, London, pp 23.

Cobb, P.M. 2014 The Race for Paradise: an Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press

Silverstein, A. J. 2010. Islamic History. Oxford University Press.

Sonn, T. 2004. A Brief History of Islam. Blackwell Publishing.

Stark, R. 2009. God’s battalions: The case for the Crusades, HarperCollins Publishers.

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