ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Seventh Century

Section 3: The Arabs -- A Covenant With God Leads to Empire

Steven Muhlberger

...then al-Miqdad b. `Amr stood up and said, "O Messenger of God, carry on as God has commanded you, and we, by God are with you; we will not say, as the Children of Israel said to Moses, 'Go thou and thy Lord and fight! We will sit here,' but we will say 'Go thou and thy Lord and fight! We will fight with thee.' By him who sent you with the truth, if you led us to Bark al-Ghimad (meaning the town in Abyssinia), we would fight with you against those who stood in our way until you reached it." The Messenger of God replied, "Well said!" -- and prayed for blessings for him.

The early literature of Islam leaves no room for doubt about a basic fact: Mohammed and his early followers saw his message from God as the last of a series, the prophecies and covenants issued to the Jews and the Chrisitians in times past. The Arabs, although "barbarians," that is outsiders to the metropolitan culture of the Middle East and Mediterranean, had been deeply affected by the religious currents of the settled lands. The adoption of Islam was their entrance into cosmic respectability -- they were accepting the role of Chosen People of God.

In most previous centuries, the Arabian peninsula had been regarded as a backwater. It had its fertile areas and its small cities, but mostly it was desert, inhabited by fierce warrior tribes and enterprising camel herders and caravaners who carried incense and other goods between Yemen and the Fertile Crescent. (As with the Vikings in later centuries, warriors and traders were often the same people). During the sixth century, however, the increasing commerce between Egypt and India across the Red Sea, and the wide-ranging superpower diplomacy of Byzantium and Persia involved the Arabs in the wider world. Employment of Arabs as mercenaries in the borderlands of Syria and Mesopotamia was just one result. Outside influences came into the peninsula itself. There was an increasing Jewish presence, both native-born and convert, in Arabia. The hostility between Jews and Christians had political consequences in Arabia, including (as we saw earlier) an invasion of Yemen by a Christian prince of Ethiopia. Later, the Persians, alarmed by a Christian expansion that might benefit Byzantium's cause, occupied Yemen.

Although great-power competition no doubt gave many individual Arabs increased opportunity, it put pressure upon Arab culture. Not only were they subject to direct intervention, Arabs became aware that, in the eyes of their neighbors, they were worth very little. Some Arabs, especially but not only emigrants, adjusted by adopting either a Jewish or Christian identity, which provided them with an acknowledged status, both in the practical world and in the eyes of God. But there was also resistance to the penetration of foreign power and foreign values. Around the year 600, there were many prophets in Arabia, bringing a new message. All believed in common that the old pagan divinities of the tribes and the cities were false. They preached that there was one God, and that he had a special interest in and message for the Arabs.

The most successful of these prophets was of course Muhammed of Mecca. He was a caravaner whose fortune had been made when he married his employer, the wealthy widow Khadijah. By middle age, he was of moderate importance in his home city, which was both a key trading center and the site of a respected pagan cult. Muhammed was not, however, satisfied with his lot in life, and was interested in the foreign monotheistic religions. In 610, while praying in solitude outside the city, he received a revelation from God through the Archangel Gabriel. This revelation was the first of the series that became the Koran, the holy book of Islam.

The essential message of Islam is summed up in the shahadah, the Muslim confession of faith: "There is no god but God, and Muhammed is the Messenger of God." This is of course closely comparable to the Jewish confession, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," and the opening statement of Christian creeds: "We believe in one God..." Muhammed restated for the Arabs the basic tenets of West Asian monotheism: there is one Creator, infinitely superior to all creation and all creatures. Further, God expects his human creatures to obey his laws, and will judge them on their obedience or disobedience. God's laws are knowable, revealed by a series of heavenly messengers. In the scheme of Islam, Muhammed is the ultimate messenger or prophet, and his message, embodied primarily in the Koran, is the definitive one for all God-fearers. The word "Islam," describing the religion preached by Muhammed, means "submission [to the Law of God]" or "commitment [to carrying out the will of God]." A Muslim is one who takes on this obligation.

Another important Islamic term is Umma, meaning "community [of believers]. Like Moses, Muhammed brought his message to a people, and demanded that they redefine themselves as the Chosen People of God, on whom the obligation of obedience especially lay. In concrete terms, this not only meant submission to the religious dictates of Muhammed, but the abandonment by all Arabs of all parochial identities and loyalties. The believer would no longer be bound by old cult, clan, or city loyalties, but rather would consider himself only as a Muslim (and therefore, as an Arab without qualification).

Muhammed's message was, therefore, a radical challenge to the existing society of Mecca and the Arabian peninsula. His vision met with such opposition that he was forced to flee Mecca in 622. He had a refuge prepared. The city of Yathrib, divided between Jewish and pagan tribes, had recently been torn with strife, and was seeking a neutral leader who could restore peace. Muhammed's godly preaching had already won him some followers at Yathrib, and these people offered him their protection and loyalty.

For Muhammed, Yathrib was, in the words of one scholar, "an opportunity to build a new order of social life such as the development of his faith had more and more obviously demanded." In short order, Muhammed

was the acknowledged ruler of the city (thus its later name, Medina, "city of the prophet.") As such, he was obliged to take up the role of judge and of war-leader. If the Umma was not to be an irrelevant cult, it would have to fight for its position, against both opponents in Medina and the still- hostile leadership of Mecca. Muhammed did not hesitate to take this step, to fight for God and God's revelation -- something few rulers of the seventh century would have refused to do.

Between 622 (the year of Hijrah or migration to Medina, which year begins the Muslim calendar) and 630, Muhammed and his followers fought Mecca. This war was tiny by the standards of either modern times or of seventh-century imperial campaigns, but it was crucial in solidifying the Muslim polity. Victory in 630, gave the Umma prestige and Muhammed's generals new resorces, allowing them to subdue nearly the entire peninsula by 632, when Muhammed died.

There was a moment of doubt at this point. Muhammed (according to most but not all Muslims) had chosen no successor, and the entire Muslim Arab confederacy might have fallen apart. But the prophet's most dedicated followers were able to keep the leaders of Mecca and Medina united behind the vision of a single Muslim community and a single leader, a caliph (a successor to the Prophet) who would maintain the new society Muhammed had followed, and expand its influence even farther. In short order Arabian tribes which sought to break away from the Umma were whipped into line. Then the united energies of the Arabian peninsula were turned against the weakened Byzantine and Persian empires, with dramatic results.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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