Early Islam, Part 1: The Rise of Islam

By Namit Arora

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

Map Imagine the Middle East in the early centuries of the Common Era. There is no Islam. The two dominant powers in the region are the Romans and the Persians, with a long history of fighting over territory and trade routes. The border between their two empires keeps shifting across Syria and Mesopotamia.

To the north of this border, in the steppes, are the Turks, deemed ‘savage and warlike’ by Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth century Roman historian and native of Syria. To the south, in the desert, are the Arabs. Neither the Persians, nor the Romans, took much interest in conquering these semi-nomadic tribal peoples. Instead, they followed that most pragmatic of imperial policies: turn these ‘semi-civilized’ folks into allies and use them opportunistically to score against their main rival.

Hg_d_trade_d1map At stake, besides territorial control, were the trade routes to the East for Chinese silk and Indian spices, which either went through the northern Turkish lands, or across the Sinai and the Red sea, or over the caravan routes hugging the western Arabian coast down to Aden and beyond by sea. [1] The Persians, during times of conflict, blocked all overland eastern access for the Romans.

So the two empires acted like modern corporations doling out political ‘contributions’, and the Arabs and the Turks learned to exploit the situation to their advantage, extracting a variety of military and economic subsidies from both empires. The Romans, after a botched military campaign to gain a foothold at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red sea, preferred thereafter to rely on the principalities of Arabia for the safer overland route to Aden. This caravan trade soon supported several small towns and kingdoms in Arabia. The imperial powers, by and large, sought to maintain some form of indirect rule or clientage.

Monsoonnavigation Arabia was thus sustained by the intrigues of the two empires. Its hostile interior remained empty but the coastal towns, or those centered on oases, thrived on trade and shifting alliances. Until early 3rd century CE, the most powerful economic and political power on the peninsula was the relatively independent southern kingdom of the Yemen. The Yemenis, with their understanding of the monsoon winds, had evolved an extensive and profitable knowledge of trade routes to Africa and India in addition to Iraq, Syria, and across the Mediterranean to Iberia.

The people on the Arabian Peninsula practiced polygamy and paganism. They venerated a black meteoric stone in Mecca, the Ka’ba, which was a major pilgrimage site. They were organized in tribes under a chief, usually chosen from a single family seen as noble but with no fixed rule of succession. An oral culture—they had no linguistic script, except in the deep south which had a written language—spoken Arabic was the basis of one of their major cultural expressions: a terse, epigrammatic, poetic manner of speech (hence the ‘miraculous character’ of the style of composition of the Qur’an). The nomads among them, the Bedouin, referred to themselves as ‘arab. According to historian Philip K. Hitti,

Bedouin_tent_shelter_low ‘The clan is the basis of Bedouin society. Every tent represents a family; members of one encampment constitute a clan. A number of kindred clans grouped together make a tribe … Tenacity and endurance enable the nomad to survive where almost everything else perishes. Individualism is so deeply ingrained that he has never become a socially conscious being. [The Bedouin’s] ideals of devotion to the common good have not gone beyond that which pertains to his tribe. Discipline, respect for order and authority are not among his ideals.’ [2]

Back then the Bedouin had the vast empty interior of the peninsula to themselves and led a fiercely independent existence, influenced no doubt by the harsh environment, living by raising sheep, goats and camels, and skirmishing often with rival tribes. The Bedouin were the people who, in the words of caliph Umar, ‘furnished Islam with its raw material.’

Unfortunately for the sedentary Arabs in trading towns, a widespread economic decline between the fourth and early sixth centuries dried up trade and even brought peace between the two superpowers, due in part to diminished imperial ambitions. Suddenly, all subsidies ceased and caravan traffic came to an end. For the coastal towns and kingdoms in Arabia,

Desertscape2 ‘The drying up of trade and the reverting to nomadism lowered the standard of living and of culture generally, and left Arabia far more isolated from the civilized world than it had been for a long time … Nomadism … now became predominant. This is the period to which the Muslims give the name Jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance, meaning by that of course to contrast it with the Age of Light, Islam. It was a dark age not only in contrast with what followed but also with what went before. And the advent of Islam in this sense may be seen and is indeed presented as such in the Qur’an—as a restoration of the religion of Abraham.’ [3]


Meanwhile in Europe, Rome had been sacked in 410 CE by the northern barbarians—as warlike and primitive of culture as the Turks and Arabs of the time—who established kingdoms in what are now Germany, France, England, and northern Italy. But they did embrace many aspects of the old empire—a new ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was later proclaimed in Germany—and they were all eventually absorbed into Latin Christianity, becoming its dominant population. The eastern Romans, followers of Eastern Christianity, became the ‘Byzantines’, a modern appellation—they, of course, called themselves Romans, though they said it not in Latin (romani) but in Greek (rhomaioi). Early Byzantine monarchs used titles like Imperator, Caesar and Augustus, and later two Greek terms: Basileus and Autocrator.

MidEast6th Emperor Constantine had only moved his capital to Constantinople in 330 CE, but a political division happened in 395 CE, as two sons of an emperor began ruling east and west, respectively. From being the second language of the unified Roman Empire, Greek became the first language of Byzantium. It flourished in the major Byzantine cities alongside other local Semitic languages—Coptic in Egypt, Syriac or Aramaic in Syria (the language of Christ), and Armenian in eastern Anatolia. Arabic was the last major Semitic language to arrive in the region.

Over in Persia, Zoroastrianism had received a great boost under the Sassanid dynasty (223-633 CE). [4] It is perhaps the first example of a state religion with a state imposed orthodoxy; it had a finely regulated caste hierarchy that pervaded its sociopolitical apparatus. The Persian ‘church’ sanctified royal power, exercising not only spiritual but worldly authority, with lands, tithes, and privileges. But with religion this strongly aligned with national identity, Zoroastrianism’s appeal to non-Persians remained small. It made no pretensions to universalism, nor did it seek to proselytize (when the Arabs eventually overthrew the Persian state, Zoroastrianism and its priestly class perished with it, never to revive again [4]).

Then came the end of the peaceful interregnum; the Perso-Byzanine conflict revived in the sixth century, and both empires once again courted Arabia. Frontier kingdoms sprouted in northern Arabia—the Ghassanids allied to Byzantium; the Lakhmids allied to the Persians. Peopled by Christian Arabs, they learned about the material tastes and mores of their more sophisticated neighbors, acquired arms and military tactics, created a script and began writing their own language. From their neighbors’ monotheism—and related pomp, rituals, and elaborate framework of moral codes—the Arabs further south developed an inferiority complex about their paganism. Many craved a new religion of their own.

800px-Persia_600ad By early seventh century, both Byzantines and Persians were reeling from war weariness, internal religious conflict, and plague epidemics. The Syrians and Egyptians disliked the orthodox strictures of Byzantium and disagreed over theological matters. Eastern Christianity had inherited the urge for disputation and logical analysis from the ancient Greeks whereas a great deal of western Christian theology was based on the spirit of Roman law. [5] The former butted heads over nuances that didn’t occupy the latter, or the Jews—or the ancient Greeks for that matter, who hardly bothered with formal theology. A major crisis concerned the nature of Jesus: did the son of God possess both divine and human natures? [6] Splinter churches arose in the east, modifying many doctrines of official orthodoxy while also giving expression to cultural and linguistic resentments of the non-Greek speaking populace.

By this time, the Persian empire of the Sassanids too, with its capital at Ctesiphon in Iraq, had grown weak and its old feudal structure was broken. A new type of military feudalism, dominated by generals, was emerging and pointed towards a disintegration of the empire. ‘Its characteristic feature was an aristocratic society … status derived wholly from membership of the closed upper classes … [with their] elaborate rituals and ceremonies … the old Persian feudal nobility had become militarily inefficient.’ The privileged classes were immune from taxation. On the religious front, Manicheanism and its offshoots—deeply ascetic in character—had challenged the ways of the priestly and royal classes. [7]

Jabalnoor Around this time, an unschooled loner, 40, from the tribe of Quraysh in the trading town of Mecca took to roaming the nearby hills, engaged in a solitary spiritual quest. He was close to a group of people called Hanifs, who, while abandoning paganism, were not prepared to accept any of the competing religious doctrines on offer. Early Islamic chronicles betray a sense of foreshadowing. ‘Arabia was a world waiting for a guide and a man was searching for a vocation.’ [8]


Fast-forward a few decades. Muhammad is dead; Arabia is united by a new faith and is under a single political command with a formidable army. At first the Byzantines do not realize that ‘the marauders from Arabia who now began to break across the borders farther than usual were more than casual raiders. They quickly discovered that their foe had a new vigor and … superior mobility. The Arabian camel was bringing a new and irresistible element into warfare.’ [9] The Arabs rapidly made territorial gains, including the siege and capture of Damascus, soon to be the capital of the new Islamic empire.

The commanders of the Arab armies in the wake of Muhammad were townspeople of Mecca and Medina. Overpopulation in Arabia had driven many to fertile northern lands; parts of Syria and Iraq already had a substantial Arab population. Whether animated by the new creed or a simple love of plunder, many went with the advancing Arab armies and received state lands confiscated from earlier regimes. They lived like colonial bosses, employed local labor, and resided in garrison towns, or military cantonments, from where Arab influence radiated into the countryside. Such brand new settlements included Kufa and Basra in Iraq, Qomm in Iran, Fustat in Egypt, and Qayrawan in Tunisia. Around them grew outer towns with native peoples—artisans, shopkeepers, traders, who benefited by association; some took up employment in the Arab armies. In only a few decades, the Arabs had conquered lands from Gibraltar to the Indus.

Here is historian JM Roberts on the Arabs’ astonishing military success, one of the most dramatic in human history:


‘Even when they met formidable opponents, though, the Arabs still had great military advantages. Their armies were recruited from hungry fighters to whom the Arabian Desert had left small alternative; the spur of overpopulation was behind them… They fought their way, too, into lands whose peoples were often already disaffected with their rulers; in Egypt for example, Byzantine religious orthodoxy had created dissident and alienated minorities. Yet when all such influences have been totted up, the Arab success remains amazing. The fundamental explanation must lie in the movement of large numbers of men by a religious ideal. The Arabs thought they were doing God’s will and creating a new brotherhood in the process; they generated an excitement in themselves like that of later revolutionaries.’ [10]

While this may account for the military successes of the Arabs, what accounts for the swift embrace of Islam by peoples with longer and richer religious traditions? Historians have offered several reasons.

The early Arab conquerors hardly ever force conversions—monotheists recognized by the Qur’an, the Dhimmis, were protected peoples. [11] Instead, they focused on military conquest in the time-honored tradition, made vigorous by their new faith. Dissident and alienated minorities already existed in Byzantine lands. In the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, the Arabs were welcomed as liberators by the locals who resented the ‘oppressive yoke of Constantinople, committed as it was to the defense of orthodoxy, especially since the reign of Justinian (527-565)’ [12] — the Arabs had not evolved a significant doctrine or law as yet to pose a parallel threat. ‘The religion of the Qur’an had such close affinities with both Judaism and Christianity that in the beginning it must have appeared more like a heretic Christian sect than a distinct religion.’ [13] Both the Christians and the Jews found their new masters more tolerant and unconcerned with fervent theology. Being outsiders, as well as a minority spread thin, the Arabs could not afford to behave any other way.

For the vast majority, the coming of the Arabs amounted to exchanging one set of masters for another, the deal made sweeter by the lower Arab taxation across the board—lower still for those who converted. Besides, there were the practical advantages of learning the language and methods of the new imperial government and commerce. With the terminal decline of organized Zoroastrianism, many Persians, particularly of lower castes, found an alternative faith with immediate advantages. The early Arabs, in fact, maintained strict social, political and economic barriers between Arab and non-Arab, irrespective of the latter adopting Islam. Arab women were not allowed to marry non-Arabs while the converse was permitted. In doing so, they blatantly flouted the Qur’anic message of universal equality of all Muslims.

KISH_07_156 In the early centuries, Islam therefore spread without a big top-down missionary drive and in spite of the conscious ‘ethnic’ distance created by the Arabs—if not an improvement, it was perceived as no worse by most converts. Besides, the act of conversion was easy, the Qur’an was the Word of God Himself, and most importantly, the new faith promised ‘no priests, no Church, no kings and no nobles, no privileged orders or castes of any kind, save only for the self-evident superiority of those who accept the true faith to those who willfully reject it.’ [14] In addition to this ‘religious socialism’ that evidently appealed to the masses, it called for a submission to the will of Allah, the one and only Creator, and mandated the adoption of a complete way of life with rules of personal conduct, interpersonal relations, hygiene, clothing, and rituals. The law of the land was based on the Qur’an—the Shari’ah, or the well-trodden path—with no territorial-political limits to its jurisdiction, encompassing instead the community of all believers. [15]


Cuatrocalifas The first four Caliphs of Islam, the Rashidun, or ‘the rightly guided ones’, lived in Mecca. They were chosen by a closed-door deliberation of elders, not by hereditary right. Three were assassinated, making it an inauspicious start for political Islam. The issue at heart was the basis of succession itself—Muhammad, who was not only the political leader of his community but also led the conquest of Arabia, didn’t lay down any guiding principles or appoint a successor. ‘While consultation was recommended [by the Qur’an] and arbitrary rule deplored, the one was not enjoined, nor the other forbidden.’ [16] Over the centuries, any line of descent from Muhammad, no matter how tenuous, would be used to buttress claims of leadership of an Islamic community in some faraway land, becoming a basis of dynasties and a cause of bitter strife.

When Ali, the fourth Caliph, was murdered, the then powerful governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, threw his hat in the ring. He was a Quraysh—a member of the Prophet’s tribe—of the house of Umayyad in Mecca, and was also related to the second caliph. He had disliked Muhammad when he was alive but here was the opportunity of a lifetime. When his lust for power prevailed, the locus of Arab rule shifted north—Damascus became the capital of the new Islamic empire, the Umayyad Caliphate. Despite the anti-monarchical bent of the Qur’an, which also placed ties of blood beneath those of belief, hereditary succession became normative in the Umayyad Caliphate.

The Umayyads lasted over a century. Institutionally, they made few drastic changes in the lands they ruled: the basis was conquest for tribute, not assimilation. ‘The Umayyad caliphs … were concerned primarily with the consolidation of their political power and the solution of the numerous economic and administrative problems.’ [17] Islam often spread in spite of them. Later Sunni purists declared them worldly and irreligious usurpers. At the end of the 7th century, the caliph Abdul al-Malik made Arabic the official state language—until then public records in Damascus were kept in Greek—and issued coins with only words on them, proclaiming la ilaha illa-'llah, Muhammadun rasulu-'llah (No god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah).

Dome_of_the_Rock1 The Umayyads also commissioned the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the first monumental religious complex in Islam. [18] It represented the arrival of a new faith of Abrahamic lineage; inscriptions on its walls recognized Jesus as an apostle of God but cast doubts upon his status as His Son and incarnation. [19] Next came the great Umayyad mosque in Damascus, replacing a Christian basilica, which had replaced a temple of Jupiter. Its novelty was a design from the Prophet’s house in Medina—the mihrab, which indicated the direction of Mecca, and it soon became a feature of every mosque. Large mosques were built in Aleppo, Cordoba, and Qayrawan—they dazzled the man in the street and drove home the greatness of Allah and His messenger, backed by a powerful political establishment.

Many Arabs in positions of power in the frontiers cities of Islam amassed enormous fortunes and, like a newly rich untutored class, squandered it with abandon. They spent lavishly on fine textiles, royal palaces and opulent private homes, mosques and public buildings. The machinery of empire was in top gear but not everyone was happy. The pecking order seems to have placed the Arabs on top, followed by half-Arabs, the native converts and the non-Muslim, in that order. ‘The state’, says Albert Hourani in A History of the Arab Peoples, ‘… served the interests of small groups of rich and powerful men, who operated—in government and in other fields—by methods that to an increasing and disquieting extent resembled those of the ancient empires that Islam had overthrown and superseded.’

Resistance to Umayyad rule began brewing in the ranks and it came from multiple fronts: (a) the formerly-privileged elites of Persia who resented their subordination to uncouth Arab bigwigs, (b) those who opposed hereditary succession, and (c) those who wanted hereditary succession but derived from the Prophet’s family—the Shi’a. In 680, Husayn, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet, led an insurrection at Karbala in southern Iraq on the tenth day of Muharram; they were defeated by the Umayyad forces, marking the beginning of a schism within Islam. [20]

5kerbala ‘… some seventy were killed … the sole survivor being a sick child, Ali the son of Husayn, who was left lying in a tent … The massacre of Karbala became central to the Shiite perception of Islamic history … The doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are of minor importance, far less than those that divide the rival churches of Christendom. But the Shiite sense of martyrdom and persecution, reinforced by their long experience through the centuries as a minority group under rulers whom they regard as usurpers, raised a psychological barrier between them and the Sunni state and majority, a difference of experience and outlook, and therefore also of religious and political attitudes and behavior. Karbala was to become a major Shi’a shrine.’ [21]

The Umayyads of course had their own party of religious supporters, the Sunnis, who believed that doctrinal authority resided with the Caliphate, which was elective and any Quraysh—a member of the Prophet’s tribe—was eligible. A few decades later, a full-fledged armed revolt held together by a coalition of interests arose in the former Persian heartland, in the very towns founded a century earlier by the Arabs. Led by Abu Muslim, a manumitted slave, they defeated the Umayyad army in 750 CE; the caliph and his family were assassinated, except one of his grandsons who escaped to the Muslim domains of Spain, becoming over time the ruler of al-Andalus. In the Middle East, political power now shifted east to Abbasid Baghdad, ushering in the remarkable golden age of Islam.

(Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam)



1. The Romans claimed Armenia and Mesopotamia, then ruled by the Persians, because emperor Trajan had conquered them earlier—a precedent-setting notion of entitlement. When the Byzantines replaced the Romans, they added another reason to the claim: most of its inhabitants were Christians so they ought to be part of Byzantium—the logic of ethnicity. The Persians claimed Syria, Palestine and even Egypt, which they said were conquered by the Persian king Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, in 525 BCE.
2. Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 1970, pp. 12, 17.
3. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 1997, p. 42.
4. Persia was named after the southwestern province of Pars or Fars on the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf. It was the dialect of this region that eventually became high Persian. ‘Iran’ appeared only in 1935, derived from Persian ‘aryanam’ meaning ‘the land of the Aryans’. When the long history of Persia under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians came to an end some Persians sought refuge in India—their descendants survive today as the Parsees (i.e., from the province of Pars).
5. Roman Christianity diverted interest away from speculative theology to juridical questions about the membership of the church and the validity of sacraments. This led to two widely separate ways of regarding and defining one important doctrine—the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, or from both the Father and the Son—the Roman church, without consulting the East, incorporated the latter into their creed. This bordered on heresy in the East—they said that the Trinity could only have one head and both the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeded from Him. The Eastern churches also resented the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy, the limitation of the right of confirmation to the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The East-West schism began when a western Cardinal left a bull of excommunication (July 16, 1054) on the altar of the great church of Hagia Sophia. The bull condemned the patriarch, the eastern doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the marriage of their priests, and their use of leavened bread for the Eucharist. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica 1998.)
6. Many communities held that Christ had a single nature, composed of two natures. Coptic, Syriac and Armenian Christians adopted this Monophysite doctrine. Some however maintained that the distinction between the two natures was sharper. These were the Nestorians of Iraq, named after their main thinker. Another group, the Monotheletes, held that Christ had two natures but one will.
7. Founded by Mani, it was a syncretistic religious dualism originating in Persia in the 3rd century CE, teaching the release of the spirit from matter through asceticism. According to al-Beruni, Mani ‘went to India, learned metempsychosis from the Hindus, and transferred it to his own system.’
8. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 1991, Warner Books, p. 11.
9. Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 1970, p. 64.
10. J. M. Roberts, History of the World, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 252-274.
11. ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (Qur’an 2:256). For non-monotheists, however, the official remedy was harsher: they could accept conversion, death or slavery (but rarely invoked in reality).
12. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Second Edition, Colombia University Press, 1983, pp. 1-2.
13. Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 1970, p. 44.
14. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 1997, p. 72.
15. Scholars have justifiably drawn parallels between Islam and 20th century Communism. Both offered singular visions of history, society, morality, and conduct; even the urge to proselytize is common, though the latter was explicitly anti-religious. The average man in the street was hardly a fanatic in either case, more an undiscriminating person swept up in ‘the system’. The hardliners were a minority in both cases.
16. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 1997, p. 143.
17. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Second Edition, Colombia University Press, 1983, p. 5.
18. Built in 691. Stylistically, it is a landmark in architectural history, the first Islamic building with a dome. It was a shrine glorifying and sheltering one of the most sacred places of Jew and Muslim alike; men believed that on the hill-top it covered, Abraham had offered up his son Issac in sacrifice and that from it Muhammad was taken up into heaven.
19. It is erroneous to call Muslims Mohammedans or Islam as Mohammedanism because Muhammad is only the messenger of Allah, his status is not divine and he is not worshiped. In this, Islam differs significantly from Christianity where Jesus is the incarnation of God and is worshiped. The Qur'an was only revealed to the Prophet through the angel Gabriel.
20. Another split would occur within Shi’a Islam—the twelver-Shi’a and the Ismailis, followers of the two descendants of a predecessor Imam. The twelfth Iman of the former disappeared under mysterious conditions and is still believed to show up one fine day. The latter have had Imams ever since.
21. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 1997, p. 67.


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