Islam is often viewed solely in terms of its origins in the barren, sparsely settled Arabian Peninsula. To be sure, Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the years 610 CE
to 632 CE
in the Arabian city of Mecca. However, during the century following Muhammad’s death, the Arabs expanded out of the peninsula and conquered an empire stretching from Spain to present-day Pakistan. The great capital cities of the first Arab-Islamic empires, Damascus and Baghdad, were located not in Arabia but in the long-settled lands of antiquity. To understand the development of Islam and Islamic civilization, we must recognize that the Middle East region into which Islam expanded was a rich repository of centuries of accumulated intellectual exchanges, religious experiences, and administrative practices. Islamic society built upon these existing foundations and was shaped by them. As Ira Lapidus noted, “The civilization of Islam, though born in Mecca, also had its progenitors in Palestine, Babylon, and Persepolis.”1
Ancient Near Eastern civilization developed within the city-states that first appeared in lower Iraq around 3500 BCE. These settled communities created written alphabets, governing institutions, and elaborate religious rituals. By about 2400 BCE, larger political entities emerged as regional empires in which several cities were incorporated into a single state ruled by a dominant monarch. The growth of ever-larger regional empires acted as an integrative force, unifying greater numbers of people under common legal systems and exposing them to shared cultural and religious experiences. Over the course of centuries, improvements in agricultural and military technology, transportation and communications, in social and administrative organization enabled empires to dominate increasingly extensive territories. This process first culminated in Egypt’s Nile Valley, where an advanced civilization took shape under the rule of the pharaohs. The monuments to gods and kings that line the Nile testify to the shared religious and dynastic traditions of the ancient Egyptians. The Iranian-based Acheminid Empire (550 BCE-331 BCE) had a similar unifying effect, as it brought all the Middle Eastern lands from Egypt to the Oxus River into a single imperial framework.
In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BCE, the Middle Eastern lands between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea absorbed yet another layer of tradition as Greek became the language of administration and high culture. Alexandria and Antioch developed into centers of Greek learning, and Greek became the dominant language of discourse among the urban elite from Egypt to Anatolia.
The absorption of new ideas and techniques continued with the Roman conquest and the consolidation of Rome’s efficient administrative practices in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia during the first century BCE. Yet although the Mediterranean lands of the Middle East were administered as provinces of the Roman Empire, their high culture remained more Hellenic than Latin. With the transfer of the imperial Roman capital to Constantinople in 330 CE and the fall of western Rome a century later, the eastern identity of the empire was solidified. That identity was represented by the Byzantine Empire, which preserved the administrative practices of Rome within the context of Hellenic civilization.
Formative Islam not only interacted with the existing material cultures outlined above but also established religious beliefs and practices. At the time of the rise of Islam, the official religions of the dominant Byzantine and Sasanian empires had largely subsumed local and regional cults, though they were still in existence. Subject peoples were expected to abandon their local gods and goddesses and adhere to the officially sanctioned imperial religion. Imperial consolidation led to religious consolidation and the emergence of monotheism, the belief in the supremacy of one god. By the time of the Arab-Islamic conquests, most Middle East inhabitants belonged to one of three monotheistic faiths.
Monotheism was first preached by the prophets of ancient Israel and is one of the most significant and enduring legacies of the Jewish faith. Although the Romans dispersed the Jews from Palestine in the first and second centuries CE, Jewish communities continued to flourish in the Middle East on the eve of Islam’s rise. Another form of monotheism was Zoroastrianism. In the seventh century BCE, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster preached a doctrine that upheld the existence of a supreme God pitted in a constant struggle against the forces of evil. The rulers of the Iranian-based Sasanian Empire (234 CE—634 CE) revived Zoroastrianism and adopted it as their state’s official religion.
A third monotheistic faith, Christianity, grew rapidly from Roman times onward and was proclaimed the state religion of the Byzantine Empire in the late fourth century. However, differing interpretations over the nature of Christ divided the adherents of the faith and led to the growth of separate churches, each jealously guarding its version of the truth. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the main body of the church defined Christ as having two natures, divine and human. But other Christian communities, known as Monophysites, believed that Christ had only a single nature, which was divine. The Monophysite doctrine was institutionalized in the Coptic church of Egypt, which had its own religious hierarchy and conducted its ritual in the native Egyptian Coptic language. The Armenian church in Anatolia also held to the Monophysite interpretation, as did certain groups in Syria. At the time of Islam’s rise, these regional Monophysite churches, with their vernacular liturgies, were under attack from the Byzantine authorities, who sought to impose on the empire’s subjects the official Greek Orthodox version of Christianity.
Islam unified Byzantium’s Greco-Christian territories and Iranian-Zoroastrianism’s lands into a single religiously based universal empire. The encounter between the new faith of Islam and the Middle East’s established traditions led to the creation of a new civilization that was profoundly and unmistakably Islamic yet also bore evidence of the centuries of accumulated practices that had preceded it.
KEY EVENTS: THE DEVELOPMENT OF ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
On the eve of the rise of Islam, two competing imperial states, the Roman-Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the east, ruled the settled lands of the Middle East. The Byzantine emperors were successors to the Caesars and presided over an imposing edifice of high cultural and political traditions that blended Greek learning, Roman administration, and Greek Orthodox Christianity. In the early seventh century, the emperor’s territorial possessions stretched from the Italian peninsula across southern Europe to the magnificent capital city of Constantinople. The empire’s Middle Eastern provinces included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria as well as parts of Iraq and Anatolia. Supported by a standing professional army, a highly developed bureaucracy, and the priesthood of the Orthodox church, the Byzantium rulers appeared to be powerful and secure.
In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, however, Byzantium was weakened by challenges to its military, religious, and administrative authority. Beginning in 540, the imperial rivalry between the Byzantines and Sasanians erupted into open warfare that continued almost uninterrupted until 629. Campaign and counter-campaign exhausted the military forces of both empires, depleted their treasuries, and inflicted extensive damage to the lands and cities lying between the Nile and the Euphrates. To meet the financial demands of constant warfare, the Byzantine emperors periodically raised taxes, a measure that alienated their subjects, who had already suffered economic hardships from warring armies passing back and forth across their lands.
Religious divisions created additional tensions between the Byzantine state and its subjects. Once the Byzantine Empire adopted Greek Orthodox Christianity as the state religion in the late fourth century, the emperors and the church attempted to enforce popular acceptance of this officially approved version of the faith. But peoples within the empire continued to adhere to other forms of Christianity and to Judaism as well as to use their own vernacular languages for scripture and ritual. Unwilling to tolerate these challenges to official orthodoxy, the state branded them as heretical and undertook to suppress them. The persecution of Jews and of Christians outside the Greek Orthodox community caused great disaffection within the empire and explains in part why many Byzantine subjects welcomed the arrival of the more religiously tolerant Muslim rulers.
The Sasanian Empire of Iran, with its capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, contested Byzantium for control of the territories between Iraq and Egypt. Heir to the 1,200-year-old Acheminid tradition of universal Iranian empire, the Sasanian state was based on the principle of absolute monarchy. The emperor was the king of kings (shahanshah), a distant and all-powerful ruler living in palatial splendor and surrounded by elaborate ceremonial trappings. Over the centuries, Iranian bureaucratic practices had become refined, and a large and experienced scribal class administered the Sasanian Empire. Like their Byzantine counterparts, the Sasanian emperors had at their disposal an effective standing professional army, which was noted for its heavily armed and armored cavalry.
Yet popular discontent, much of which stemmed from religious diversity, diluted the Sasanian Empire’s apparent strength. By the late sixth century, the official Sasanian state religion of Zoroastrianism had become more significant as a ceremonial faith for the ruling elite than as the religion of the population. In the western part of the empire in particular, people were more attracted to various strains of Christianity and Judaism than to Zoroastrianism. In the absence of a unifying religious affiliation with their ruler, many subjects of the Sasanian Empire lacked feelings of loyalty toward the state.
Although the Byzantine and Sasanian empires were in transition when Islam first extended into them, it is important to recognize their impact on the development of Islamic governing practices and religious doctrine. Formative Islam would be influenced by the Greek legacy of Byzantium, by the bureaucratic tradition of Iran, and by the concepts of emperor that had developed in the Constantinople and Ctesiphon courts. Islam must be understood as a product of the societies into which it spread as well as of the society from which it originated.
With the exception of Yemen in the south and a few scattered oasis settlements elsewhere, the Arabian Peninsula is a vast desert. It is the home of the Arabs, an ancient Semitic people whose origins cannot be traced with certainty. In contrast to the rigorously administered domains of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, the Arabian Peninsula of the early seventh century lacked any central organizing authority. It had no state structure, no common legal system, and no administrative center. Tribes were the largest units of social and political organization to which an individual’s loyalties were given. Each tribe was an entity unto itself, bound by ties of kinship based on a belief in common descent from a founding ancestor. The majority of Arabia’s inhabitants were pastoral nomads raising camels, sheep, or goats. The dearth of pasturelands required constant movement from one grazing ground to another. Competition for the scarce resources of the land created rivalries among the tribes, and warfare became ingrained as a way of life. All males were expected to be warriors, and accounts of the exploits of the most daring among them became enshrined in tribal culture. The widespread experience of the Arabs in warfare would be a significant factor in the early expansion of Islam.
Notwithstanding the divisions inherent in the tribal structure of pre-Islamic Arabia, forces of cultural unity were present. The Bedouin ethos of bravery and honor was celebrated in a special style of Arabic poetry known as a qasidah. The existence of this poetry, which was recited at market fairs and tribal gatherings, has convinced historians that the Arabs of the seventh century possessed a common poetic language that could be understood across different regions of the peninsula. This was of the utmost significance for the spread of Islam because it meant that the Prophet Muhammad’s religious message could be communicated to Arabic speakers across a broad expanse of territory.
Isolated though it was, the Arabian Peninsula was not completely cut off from the forces that shaped Middle Eastern civilization. On the eve of Islam’s rise, two Arab tribal confederations guarded the northern Arabian frontiers as client states of Byzantium and the Sasanians, respectively. Both of these Arab confederations were Christian, providing evidence of the spread of the concept of monotheism among the Arabs before Muhammad’s time.
At the southwestern tip of Arabia, Yemen provided another entry point for external influences into the peninsula. Unlike the rest of Arabia, Yemen was a fertile and well-watered region able to support a settled agricultural society. By the fourth and fifth centuries CE, several Arab communities in southern Arabia had adopted Christianity, and the ruler of Yemen’s last pre-Islamic dynasty converted to Judaism. Yet despite the fermentation of religious doctrines in the settled regions of northern and southern Arabia, most of the tribes of the interior continued to practice various forms of animism, worshipping local idols or deities.
During the two centuries before Islam, Arabia acquired increasing importance as a commercial transit route between the Middle Eastern empires and Yemen. The wars between Byzantium and the Sasanians disrupted the east—west overland routes and gave rise to a brisk north—south caravan trade through the Hijaz, Arabia’s coastal plain adjacent to the Red Sea. The main Arabian beneficiary of this commercial network was the city of Mecca, which developed into the most important commercial center of the peninsula. By the early seventh century, Meccan merchants had accumulated sufficient capital to organize their own caravans and to provide payments to an extensive network of tribes in exchange for pledges to allow the caravans to pass in peace.
In addition to its role as a commercial center, Mecca was a religious site of major significance. The city’s shrine, the Ka’ba, became the center of an animistic cult that attracted worshipers throughout western Arabia. By the time of Muhammad’s birth, the Ka’ba had become the site of an annual pilgrimage during which warfare was suspended, and Mecca’s sanctuary became a kind of neutral ground where tribal disputes could be resolved. The city derived considerable income from its religious role, and its leading families recognized the importance of the sanctuary as a source of wealth and influence.
Mecca’s leading clans were all members of the Quraysh tribe that settled the city, established its religious role, and dominated its political and commercial life. Although formal municipal organizations did not exist, a council of prominent Quraysh merchants loosely regulated the city’s affairs. Historians have suggested that prior to the birth of Islam, Mecca was in a state of transition between the vanishing tribal ways and a nascent urbanism spawned by merchant capitalism. Customary tribal values were being displaced, but no fully developed set of communal values suitable for an urban setting had yet emerged.
Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the future Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca around 570. His early life gave little indication of the compelling prophet and skillful statesman he would later become. He was born into the Hashim clan, a subtribe of the Quraysh. Orphaned at two, Muhammad was raised and sheltered by his uncle, Abu Talib. As a young man, he engaged in the caravan trade and may have journeyed to Damascus. His financial position was secured when, in his early twenties, he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah. Khadijah holds an honored place in the history of Islam; she was the first convert to the new faith after Muhammad himself, and she supported him during the difficult early years of his prophethood, when most of Mecca’s population scorned him.
Muhammad was widely respected as a decent and trustworthy individual. He lived an otherwise ordinary life as merchant, husband, and father to the four daughters born to Khadijah. But as Muhammad neared his fortieth year, his behavior gradually began to change. He often left Mecca, sometimes for days at a time, to meditate in solitude in the mountains outside the city. Some scholars have conjectured that Muhammad was reflecting on what he saw as the problems that afflicted Meccan society and was seeking ways to resolve them. It was during one of his solitary vigils on Mount Hira that Muhammad was summoned to his prophetic mission, an event known in Islam as the Night of Power. The summ...