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ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (1 of 6)

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Islam, Power and Empire, to 677 CE

Muhammed the Prophet wins Militarily | Succession Politics, 622-23 | Arabs Conquer Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine | Muslim Conquests in Egypt and Iran | Succession Conflict and the Sunni-Shia Divide | The Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, to 677 CE

The Cave of Hira

The Cave of Hira, two miles from Mecca, where Muhammad is believed to have received his
first revelations from God, through the angel Gabriel. The cave goes back about 12 feet.

Muhammad the Prophet wins Militarily

Muhammad the Prophet

An imageless Muhammad. He insisted that he was only a prophet, the last prophet, not a god and not to be worshipped. His image is not in any mosque.

While the Sassanid and Byzantine empires were weakening each other, a new religious organization and political force was rising on the Arabian peninsula: Islam. There, towns were few. Arabia had been divided mainly among warlike nomadic tribes with camels, cattle and flocks of sheep. An individual's survival depended on subordinating himself to his tribe. And tribes sometimes compensated for periods of extreme dryness by raiding neighboring tribes or a passing caravan.

The town of Mecca was a link in trade between Constantinople and India. The Quraysh tribe controlled the town. Members of the tribe were skilled merchants and traders and involved in the overland spice trade.

Like other tribal peoples, people of the Arabian desert had been polytheistic. These were people who believed in spirits that were neutral to them, spirits that were hostile and spirits to which they could appeal. They believed that through ritual they could bind their tribe to a spirit. And they saw spirits in various objects and places. They saw spirit in the moon and stars, in the rocks which marked their way through the desert, in springs and water wells, in caves, in the few trees in the region and on mountain tops – places they considered holy.

When Arabic tribes came together at markets and fairs they engaged in religious ceremony and held a truce. At these fairs the tribes had acquired a common view of a god they called Allah, a god who was one among the other gods. These contacts among tribes reinforced their common language, which was rich in poetry, and they acquired a common identity as Arabs.

Into this region called Arabia had come cultural influences from elsewhere. There were the descendants of Jewish refugees from centuries before. And, by the year 500, Christian missionaries had arrived in Arabia. The entire Arabian province of Najran had been Christian. Christianity was established superficially in various other centers of trade, and Arabs living on the borders of what was left of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires had contacts with people and ideas from those empires.

A tradesman member of the Quraysh from Mecca named Mohammad was familiar with Christianity. The earliest biography on the Prophet Muhammad of which scholars are aware dates to 767, 135 years after his death, and this biography is known to scholars through an edition compiled in 833. Muhammad is described as occasionally withdrawing to meditate in a cave outside Mecca, similar to the withdrawal of some Christian ascetics in Syria. In the cave, Muhammad, at around forty years of age, began hearing messages from God via the angel Gabriel. Muhammad decided that the god he knew as Allah was also Jehovah, the god of the Jews and Christians. He claimed to foresee the end of the world, a day of judgment when the dead would be awakened, when all would be judged according to their deeds and sent to either paradise or eternal flames.

Muhammad saw his faith as monotheistic. And he saw the world between God and humanity as occupied by spirits not called gods but labelled as angels and demons. He saw the future as in the hands of God, and he felt it was his duty to convert people to what he called "submission to the will of God" and to warn his fellow Meccans of God's Final Judgment.

Muslim scholars were not to describe Muhammad as partaking in another instance of cultural diffusion. Instead, Islam was viewed as an intervention by God – such intervention an ancient and common view. The scholar Reza Aslan writes:

Like so many prophets before him, the Prophet Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion. On the contrary, by Muhammad's own admission, his message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples. note5

It was not a modest view. The Prophet Muhammad proclaimed that God had chosen him to preach the truth, that he was God's final and foremost messenger, superseding the message proclaimed by Jesus.

His fellow Meccans rejected his religious ideas. But Arabs visiting Mecca viewed that city as having a special spirituality, and they were impressed by Muhammad's preaching and invited him to their town, Yathrib (population roughly 10,000). Muhammad found Yathrib without any stable authority outside its Jewish community, and as a man of God he established himself as someone to come to for judgments.

At Yathrib, Muhammad approached the leaders of a Jewish community and claimed to be a leader of Judaism. The Jews believed Muhammad's grasp of Judaism muddled, and they rejected him. Until then, Muhammad and his followers had been bowing toward Jerusalem. After a year and a half in Yathrib, Muhammad began bowing instead toward Mecca. He abandoned Saturday as the Sabbath and made Friday the special day of the week for Islam.

Muhammad's followers suffered from poverty, and beginning in January 623 some of them resorted to the tradition of raiding the caravans that traveled along the eastern coast of the Red Sea from Mecca to Syria. These were circumstances that worked to Muhammad's favor. Seeing himself as their leader, Muhammad put himself at the head of these raids, excusing them on the grounds of the injustice of poverty and describing the raids as part of a holy war (Jihad) against the rulers of Mecca for their having rejected his teaching. Muhammad and his followers had been developing a contempt for people they called "idolaters," people who worshipped traditional, numerous gods. Energized by religious fervor, a sense of unity and the prospect of booty, his men fought well.

Muhammad's movement had been a fraction of those in the town of Yathrib, perhaps 1,500 strong. But his success in warfare brought new people into his army, and this larger army brought increased success and more converts. In March 624 he had his greatest success so far, at Bedr, where his followers killed from 50 to 70 Meccans who had been accompanying a caravan. Just as Christians attributed divine help in the violence that Constantine conducted against Maxentius, Muhammad of course attributed his success to the will of God.

Muhammad's power grew as he distributed booty and made alliances with tribes neighboring Yathrib. The war between Muhammad and Mecca continued. By Arab standards, Muhammad had become the leader of a great military machine, and Mecca had failed to acquire help from tribes elsewhere in Arabia. In January 630 Muhammad's army of around 10,000 men stood outside Mecca and frightened the city into surrendering. Muhammad exercised diplomatic skills, and bloodshed was avoided. He strengthened his movement by giving Meccan leaders important positions under his rule, neutralizing them as potential enemies, maintaining their leadership vis-à-vis other Meccans and soothing what might otherwise have been wounded pride. It was a traditional move by the wiser of conquerors.  

Under Muhammad's authority, Meccans of wealth were obliged to donate to the well-being of Mecca's poor. People saw Muhammad's strength as the power of his god, and they saw the other gods as having become powerless – another common way of looking at the world and more of military success deciding religious devotions. There were many conversions to Islam. And with Mecca under Muhammad's rule, the holy shrine there, the Kaaba, was turned into a place of Islamic worship.

Muhammad added Mecca's army to his own. His victory at Mecca alarmed tribes elsewhere in Arabia. Had they united with Mecca to defeat Muhammad the story might have been different, but unity of purpose had not occurred, and now not one of their armies matched Muhammad's. In February and March, 630, Muhammad’s military fought various skirmishes and the battles of Hunsin, Auras, and Taif. Muhammad was victorious, and his greater dominance was followed by more conversions.


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