by ProfDave, ©2022
(Mar. 27, 2022) — [See the author’s previous works in this series here. – Ed.]
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! Today we step into what we call the Middle East in the first half of the Christian – or common – era: Eastern Europe and Western Asia, with Africa thrown in for hors d’oeuvres. The most important development of this time and region was the rise of Islam, a religion and worldview which dominates a band of territory from Morocco to Indonesia to this day. Since 9-11, these peoples have our attention! Hold it! Flying airliners into tall buildings is not justified by any mainstream form of Islam, “fundamentalist” or not. The Koran forbids the killing of non-combatants (Lewis). This act of terrorism did, however, arise out of Middle Eastern problems and involved us in three wars (and counting) in that part of the world. In order to understand what is going on in our world, we had better learn what we can!
Arabia until the 6th century was outside the boundaries of the great civilizations. Arabians were a nomadic people in an arid land, dotted at irregular intervals with oasis cities. The most important of them was Mecca. These served not only as centers of agriculture, but of a lively caravan trade in luxury goods. Primarily the Arabs practiced a primitive form of polytheism, although Judaism and Jewish Christianity – including some wildly heretical offshoots – were practiced in the cities. The Arabs were also known for their feuding and lawlessness.
Not much is directly known about the prophet Muhammad (c.571-632). There are no Islamic gospels. One version has it that he was a camel driver who married his widowed boss. He was deeply offended by the polytheism and immorality of Mecca and the caravan routes he traveled. Since childhood, he was subject to episodes of losing consciousness and having visions. In them, he believed the angel Gabriel revealed to him prophetic messages. He was to be God’s final prophet in the line of Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The contents of these visions made their way, after his death, into the Qur’an, or Koran.
Muhammad’s messages were not well received in Mecca, so in 622 he, and his early followers, moved to Medina – up the Red Sea coast. This journey, the Hegira, is taken as the beginning of the Muslim calendar. There he was successful in converting one clan and then another – sometimes by force, more often by diplomacy– until the whole region adhered to his teaching of monotheism. He returned in triumph, with an army, to Mecca in 628. He died a successful military and political leader, four years later.
Islam means “submission.” Muhammad taught ethical monotheism, like Judaism and Christianity, and believed that he worshipped the God of Moses and of Jesus in a purer fashion. He denied the chosen-ness of Isaac and the divinity of Christ and held a rather different view of God’s nature: a righteous judge, an absolute Sovereign, transcendent but not imminent or accessible to rational investigation. It is impious to ask too many questions or to translate the Koran into other languages. The will of Allah and the words of his prophet are not to be questioned. The Christianity – and probably the Judaism as well – that he encountered in Arabia was heretical by western standards.
Everything in Islam depends on preparing for the coming Day of Judgment. Strict moral behavior is required, particularly in the regulation of sexuality. Limited polygamy was allowed, but alcohol and usury (collecting interest) were forbidden. There was liberal borrowing from Judaism and some local practices, such as the sacred black rock of Mecca, the Ka’ba. Idolatry and polytheism were especially rejected. Note: the ethics and cultural practices of shari’a were not nearly as radical in the 7th century context as they appear to us in the 21st.
The Five Pillars, of key practices, of Islam are 1. Profession of faith (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”) – which alone makes you a Muslim, 2. Prayer five times a day towards Mecca – usually recited from the Koran, 3. Alms – gifts to the poor, 4. Fasting – during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan, and 5. The Haj – pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Able-bodied men are also required to participate in jihad – the holy war against evil within themselves – and sometimes externally (particularly in the early days) to bring infidels, and especially erring Muslims, under submission to God. Those who died in battle were assured of Paradise (Lewis).
Unlike the founder of Christianity, the Prophet did not claim divinity, did not “suffer under Pontius Pilate,” and was not martyred or resurrected. Nor, for the most part, were his followers. Unlike Christians, Muslims were not, for the most part, subjected to and in competition with a hostile or independent political order. Instead Muhammad was a civil and military leader of great success. Thus, there is no church and state distinction in Islam. Instead, Islam means submission to the divine legal system.
By the death of the Prophet in 632, the whole West and North of the Arabian Peninsula had been mobilized. There was no new prophet, but tribal custom and rivalry determined the first four Caliphs, or successors (632-661). They were associates of the prophet. It came down to a bitter rivalry between Ali, cousin and son-in-law to the Prophet and the rival clansman, Mu’āwiyah I (602-680). On the eve of the great battle, Ali was assassinated and the Ummayad dynasty triumphed, eventually taking Mecca and setting the shrine of the Ka’ba on fire (Little, Beeston).
The success of Islam, like that of Christianity, was remarkable. Muhammad’s teaching apparently provided the catalyst to unite the warring desert tribesmen into a dedicated military machine. Perhaps behind it all was a population explosion of surplus males seeking to get out of the desert. In any case, they relatively quickly overwhelmed Sassanid Persia (637-50) and many provinces and former provinces of the Roman Empire (636-725). Egypt, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, was a particularly critical loss for Byzantium. But Egypt and North Africa were already rent by religious heresy and strife. The Empire was distracted and disorganized, and the Vandals of northwest Africa and Visigoths of Spain were feuding veneers over a discontented populace.
In many places the Arabs were welcomed as deliverers. By simply reciting, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” one could live relatively tax free! Christian heretics and Jews enjoyed more toleration, community self-government, and lower taxes than under the Caesars. But there were restrictions. Christians had to wear distinctive clothing, were banned from public display and making converts, and had to “submit” to the law of Allah. Examples of surviving variant Christian bodies are the Coptic Churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, the Maronites of Syria and Lebanon, and the Assyrian Church of Iraq (today in the process of being obliterated) (Spickard & Cragg, 134 ff).
The Ummayads completed the conquest from Spain to the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan) by 725, but Islam was internally divided between “orthodox” Sunni supporters of the Ummayah clan, and the “legitimist” Shi’ite supporters of Ali’s descendents by Muhammad’s daughter. All efforts to resolve the conflict failed. The Ummayad Caliphs ruled from Damascus, but the religious center of Islam remained in the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina (Beeston). The Arab domination of the movement created dissention, and the advance was stopped at the gates of Constantinople in 717 and at Tours, central France, in 732. (Britannica, Topic 465)
The Abbasids, descendents of an uncle of Muhammad, rose in revolt in 747-50. During the golden age of this dynasty, 750-833, Islam became a more international and cosmopolitan culture. It was no longer just one political entity under one dynasty. Centered in the new city of Baghdad, the Abbasids turned their attention to the east and allowed the West (Spain and Africa) to go its own way (Britannica, Topic 465). The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was established to dilute the dominance of Mecca (Lewis). Art, commerce, industry and learning flourished at a time when Christian Europe was relatively backward. But from 833-1055 division set in and generals took to assassinating Caliphs. Local dynasties undermined the Caliph’s authority. Finally, the Caliphate fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, converts to Islam, who restored some of its former glory and authorityuntil they, in turn, were overrun by the Mongols in 1258 (Britannica, Topic 465).
Much of what we know about the pre-modern development of Africa south of the Sahara is from Arab traders seeking gold, ivory and slaves. A number of kingdoms grew up in the interior from between the forest and the desert, following Islam, but the equatorial forest resisted large-scale settlement until much later (Oliver & Page).
“Abbāsid Dynasty.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia (2011) Retrieved 4/14/11 from
Beeston, Alfred Felix L., “Arabia since the 7th century.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. (2011)
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn., Boston:
Lewis, Bernard. Crisis in Islam; Holy War and Unholy Terror, on CD. New York (?): Modern
Little, Donald P., “Mu’awiyah I,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. (2011) Retrieved 4/14/11
McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Norwich, GB: Fletcher’s & Co, 1961.
Oliver, Roland and Fage, J.D. A Short History of Africa. Harmondsworth, GB: Penguin, 1968.
Spickard, Paul R. and Cragg, Kevin M. A Global History of Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.