The early expansion of Islam came with the liberal use of the sword. However, the armies of Islam succeeded in large part due to the power vacuum that existed in the region at the time. The Roman and Persiane empires had concluded nearly half a century of devastating warfare, and neither power could marshal the resources necessary to preserve the traditional order in the face of the invasion from the Arab Muslims as this sample essay will further discuss.
Expansion of Islam creates a power vacuum
The expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries was astonishingly rapid. Islam arrived in Asia, Africa, and Europe on the point of a sword, as it were; it was the religion brought by a succession of conquering Muslim armies. Therefore, the rise of Islam cannot be separated from the military campaigns of Muhammad and his successors. The success of those campaigns can be attributed to the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the subsequent weakening of Byzantium due to its efforts to recapture the territory that had been lost, in addition to its conflicts with the Persian Empire.
Islam, an offshoot faith
Islam was not a particularly new religion; rather, it was an offshoot of the two already existing great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism. All three religions used the Old Testament as a basis, though after that, the three faiths diverged; Christians had the New Testament, Jews the Torah, and Muslims the Koran. There were more similarities than differences among the three religions, though.
The conquering Muslims recognized this and called both Jews and Christians “People of the Book” and for the most part, did not force them to convert, though they did relegate those peoples to second-class status and discriminated against them to some extent; for example, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax. Only in northeast Africa, where polytheistic religions had reigned, was Islam enthusiastically embraced by the conquered peoples. This could be because Islam was seen there as a unifying and therefore pacifying force.
The armies of Islam succeeded so heavily in large part because the world they conquered was so fragmented and disorganized. The fall of Rome had divided its former territories into a hodgepodge of petty chiefdoms and kingdoms. This was especially true in North Africa; as the Muslim armies swept west, no significant opposition was mustered to oppose them. In the Middle East, the Byzantines had been weakened by their only partly successful attempt to reconquer the Italian peninsula and also by the ongoing wars with Sassanid Persia.
Much of the territory of the Levant that fell during Islam’s initial westward expansion had in fact changed hand several times in the last few years and thus, Byzantine control was not consolidated and the loss of its African and Middle Eastern provinces was swift and decisive. To the east, a similar situation existed, with Persia having lost control of much of its territory in Asia and Asia Minor due to its continual wars with Byzantium.
Unmotivated soldiers and Islam
While much of Asia and Africa, and eventually Spain, were ripe for the plucking, one still might wonder what it was about the Muslim armies that made them so invincible during a hundred years of conquest over such a huge area. Paul Fregosi, in Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries, posited that the Byzantine, Persian, and other forces that opposed the Muslim armies were ideologically fragmented and that their soldiers were unmotivated.
He noted, however, that similar deep divides of thought existed in the Islamic faith as well, in particular the Shiite/Sunni divide that persists to this day and has resulted in so much bloodshed for thirteen centuries. He arrived at a rather interesting hypothesis:
Perhaps it is because mass plunder and rape are incentives which the Christians lacked. The Jihad, to the Muslim warrior, was a wonderful sexual holiday: if he lived, lots of young and pretty women captives were available to him on earth. If he died, seventy-two houris with pearls and diamonds and renewable virginities were waiting for him in heaven lying on green satin couches. Live or die, either way the Muslim warrior won. (Fregosi 73-74)
This explanation is not all that far from the military power vacuum explanation. The fall of Rome and the receding of the Byzantine and Persian empires had left huge amounts of wealth and many opulent cities all but undefended. The opportunities for plunder were almost unlimited. The genius of Mohammad was in convincing his warriors that death would be even better than life—a sales pitch that has motivated armies, Christian and Muslim, for millennia.
A final reason why Islam would have expanded as rapidly as it did was that it was the religion of the victors in the conquered lands. In a time when so many people believed that God’s will was expressed in the events that took place on earth, the rapid victories of Muslim armies over Christians served for many as ipso facto proof that the new Islamic religion was superior; perhaps it was the true one and Allah was the true God.
In any case, why not go with a winner? Also, it may be hard to understand, particularly from the point of view of largely secularized Western society, just how basic and “everyday” the average 7th-century person’s choice of religion was. One’s religion was not merely a belief system; it was a way to live, and a prescription for every aspect of life, down to and including the way a person should dress, eat, and have sex.
While Christianity has largely lost this every-aspect-of-life, Islam and Judaism have retained it. Islam provided a sense of order and rationality in what had recently been, in Northern Africa in particular, a turbulent and often chaotic world. In this aspect, Islam had great appeal, even if that was simply the opportunity to try something new.
There can be only one system
The proponents of any religion, anywhere on earth, tout their belief as the only true one and everyone else’s belief as heretical. The great thousand-plus-year-long conflict between Christianity and Islam hasn’t changed a bit in that regard. Any view of world history that sees Islam as somehow superior due to its rapid expansion in the 7th and 8th centuries would also have to ask why, then, than dominance didn’t continue to the present day.
The truth is that no religion is inherently superior to another. Islam triumphed because Muslim armies triumphed; no more, no less. Those armies triumphed because a large, rich portion of the world lay there for the taking. The Islamic religion gave Muslim armies the proper conquering fervor, and the riches of the captured cities—treasure, women, slaves—provided the requisite payoff.
In one significant way, though, Islam, at least in its early expansion phase, had a singular quality that other religions lacked: tolerance for other religions. The treatment of Christians and Jews by Mohammad’s armies is in stark contrast to that meted out to Muslims and Jews by the Crusaders. This one factor is what enabled the Caliphate to consolidate its gains. By not engaging in the forced conversion of conquered peoples, Muslim rulers reduced unrest and made people accept their new rulers.
The plunder, rape, and taking of slaves that accompanied these conquests were seen as natural, even commonplace, by both the victors and the conquered, but then the Muslims built a civilization in the conquered lands. Islam thrived because its rulers treated its subjects relatively decently for the time. It also became clear to Islam’s subjects that the Muslim conquerors were in it for the long haul, as it were; they built great centers of learning and other public works, and brought science and other trappings of civilization to lands that had not known those things.
Therefore, while the primary reason for the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries was that it was the religion of the primary military power of the time, its continuing dominance in the conquered lands was due to the advanced nature of Muslim culture and a relatively tolerant way of treating the conquered peoples. This allowed consolidation of the Caliphate’s empire.
Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries. Prometheus Books, 1998.