Friday, June 6, 2014

The Birth and Expansion of Islam

In the now accepted version, the Western Roman Empire ceased in 476 when a 16-year old emperor, Romulus Augustus, ruling the West, more or less, from Ravenna in Italy, was pushed from the throne by a Germanic conqueror. 476 also, therefore, by convention, marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not quite a century (95 years) later, Mohammed was born in distant Mecca in 570. The fastest travel in those days was by horse. The distance between Ravenna and Mecca is just shy of 3,500 miles. In those days, when someone could travel about 30 miles a day, the trip by land (through Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) would have required 4 months. Today, by car, assuming 400 miles per day, it would take about nine days.

I show the map here, linking Ravenna and Mecca, by way of making more viscerally tangible the geographical aspects of a nascent Islam and the Christianity attempting to establish itself on the lands once covered by the Roman might. When Mohammed had turned 40, he experienced a religious revelation (610). Islam came into being and then began to spread with extraordinary energy. Its rise, viewed from the various centers of an already fragmenting Christendom, would have been experienced as a threat—like a great Green Hand reaching up, out of the south, and trying clasp Christendom in its grasp. It almost happened, but not quite. Virtually all of the Byzantine Empire, however, eventually fell ultimately to the Ottomans; they reached the gates of Vienna in Austria and controlled all of Syria, the Levant, and North Africa. And an earlier conqueror, the Umayyad Caliphate, took Iberia and held it to the Pyrenees—venturing north of there as well foiled in this attempt by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours close to the center of France in 732. This Muslim expansion was a genuine and lasting aspect of the Middle Ages, in part, if only in part, triggering the Age of the Crusades, of which the first began in 1096—and, indeed bringing the Middle Ages to an official end when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 and then began to continue expanding north.

I’ve attempted to render an image of that Green Hand in the map of Europe that follows. The coloration is entirely mine and shows, overlaid, the conquests of Mohammed, the Rashidun and succeeding caliphates who followed him, and finally the Ottoman conquests which brought Islam to Vienna’s gates.

The next two maps are the sources I used to produce the composite. The first shows the territories conquered by Mohammed (darkest, 622-633), by the Rashidun (meaning “the righteous”) Caliphs (reddish, 632-661) and by the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750).  Note that Turkey has not yet been fully overrun.

The second map shows the Ottoman Empire  at its greatest extent—with dates given in the legend. Note that during Ottoman times Spain had already been recovered and Moroccan lands held by the Umayyads had also been lost; but Turkey and the Balkans, in the East, had fallen to the Muslim conqueror.

The timeline of the incomplete embrace of Europe by Islam shows the successive conquests by Mohammed and then the caliphates which followed it. All of these held roughly the same territories of Arabia, the Levant, West Asia, Egypt, and North Africa—be they Sunni or Shia, as the Fatimid Caliphate was. The Umayyads, the second, extended its power to include Spain and Portugal; the last, the Ottoman, managed to capture Turkey and also made itself, de facto, the successor of the Byzantine, reaching far to the north.

If we date things from Mohammed’s revelation, thus from 610, the very rapid expansion of this faith is illustrated. Less than a quarter century later, Muslims had seized Syria and the Levant, a core part of the Byzantine realm. Just a tad over a century later Iberia fell into Muslim hands. But what with the Byzantine already separated from the West by the Great Schism, it took nearly 500 years from the date of the revelation to the first call it culture-wide response to develop in the West. That was the First Crusade. It was—like most of the crusades—a bloody awful thing. After the holy warriors managed to take Jerusalem, they slaughtered all Jews and Muslims captured. The Jews had been among Jerusalem’s most energetic and determined defenders—and their time had come.

I am only showing the dates for the First, Fourth, and supposed last “major” crusade, sometimes called the Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth. Different campaigns of that so-called last one were given extra numbers. But it was not by any means the last. Tedious counting produces the following counts. Nine major crusades. Wedged in between these were four others. Following the Ninth came nine others of which the last, called in 1487, was actually aimed some Christian heretics, the Waldensians located in an Alpine region between France and Italy. The crusades, with their religious aura, rapidly became a cover for any kind of war in the Middle Ages—whatever its real motives were. The institutional arrangements of that period gave princes leave to levy new taxes in support of crusades—and the institution, if one can call it that, fell into the devil’s hands right from the outset. I date the Fourth Crusade because it featured the capture of Christian Constantinople by Christian arms—and by this conquest it sealed in 1204 by arms what had begun in 1096 as the Great Schism by an exchange of excommunications.  

As already noted, the major impact of the new Muslim faith—the expansion of which was, initially, northward—fell on the Byzantine Empire and Spain. Both were, viewed from the North or from the center of Western Europe somewhat distant. The Byzantine had already begun to unravel thanks to pagan invasions and internal feudal fragmentation. In the West the enclosing thumb of the Muslim advance never effectively reached beyond Spain. The Byzantine Empire’s core, which was Turkey, resisted the first wave of attacks. Turkey fell, in the end, of internal conflict and warfare with the West had already essentially dismembered the Byzantine for the Ottomans harvest. The West resisted more successfully—although, as usually, the Muslim armies eventually covered its eastern edge, my own place of birth.

Meanwhile, in the West, people were living in “interesting times.”  The unity between state and religion, experienced under Charlemagne, was breaking apart locally as unity had also been sacrificed to the Great Schism. The Papacy entered its Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The population suffered from a combination of the Little Ice Age and distractions like the Black Death (which, per Barbara Tuchman, in her magnificent history, The Distant Mirror, “killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland” (p. xiii). Europe also endured the threats of Genghis Khan. The Muslim pressure was just one of many. And with the fourteenth century already, the early light of the Renaissance was beginning to paint the edge of the horizon.

The two aspects of the rise of Islam that most fascinate me is the energy it released down there in the deserts of Arabia with a quite different, simpler, but very genuine religious ethos. It transformed regions that had long simply endured in a kind of same-old-same-old decadence. The other aspect is that the Christian-Muslim clash—which still endures today, albeit “crusade” now has a new name—is a wondrous illustration of how different cultures form, almost synchronistically in this case, and inevitably must sort themselves out. The process is still underway. Looking back at its beginnings in the Middle Ages, we are looking at a distant, but not very distant mirror. The words change but the actions beneath them remain unmistakably the same. To be sure, when looking back, we see our faces in some macabre distortion. That was still us—even though the glass is colored darkly.
Map of Muslim Caliphates’ territories is from Wikipedia (link) and the map of the Ottoman landholdings, also from Wikipedia (link).

Middle Ages Posts:


  1. Between 800 and 1000 AD also whole Sicily was conquered by Arabs (but not by Ottomans)

  2. Between 800 AD and 1000 AD also Sicily was conquered by arabs (not by ottomans)


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