Islam was one of the religious movements which spread quickly at the onset because of the Muslim active conquests during the seventh century. Unlike Christianity which took hundreds of years before it became the state religion of the Roman Empire (through the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD), Mohammed lived to see the day when various Arab tribes were united under the banner of Islam. Mohammed did not name an heir to his role as Prophet and leader of the ummah (community) before he died, but the Rashidun caliphate that succeeded him ensured that his legacy would continue even beyond the Arab world. Persia, Syria and North Africa became Mohammedan between 630 – 711 AD according to the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History.
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Out of Arabia
The first trickle of Islamic conquest started in the Battle of Mu’tah (in Kerak, modern Jordan) led by Mohammed himself against the Byzantine Empire. For Abu Bakr, the man who replaced Mohammed as leader of the ummah (Muslim community), there was no time to waste after Mohammed’s death in 632 AD. In 633, he sent General Khalid and his forces to attack the Persian king Yazdegerd III. Four other generals were ordered to march north along with their troops to conquer the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Palestine.
Byzantine, at that time, was ruled by the emperor Heraclius. The empire was weakened after years of battles with the Persians. The Byzantines put up a great fight and proved too much for the four generals that were initially sent to go against them. Abu Bakr recalled Khalid from the Persian front (to Yazdegerd’s relief) and reinforced the troops that fought in the Syrian-Palestinian front. The Byzantines were soundly defeated, and the Muslim troops captured the city of Damascus.
Abu Bakr would not be credited as the one who captured the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Palestine as he died two years into his short reign. He was replaced by his son-in-law, Omar, who led an even greater offensive against the Byzantines and captured Syria as well as Palestine. Jerusalem was captured in 638 AD. Khalid returned to the Persian front to finish what he had started back when Abu Bakr was alive. He besieged Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, in the same year and deposed Yazdegerd III, who then fled east with his court.
To emperor Heraclius’ dismay, the Arabs stormed all the way to Egypt in 639 and wrested the province from Byzantine. He had to console himself that at least Alexandria was still under Byzantine rule, but it was not enough. After years of fighting, he died of a stroke in 641 with most of the empire’s territories now in Muslim control. Alexandria held out long enough until it also fell to the Arab armies in 642 AD. Omar sent a military expedition east into the farthest reaches of Persia until the army reached the hostile desert of Makran. This daring expedition went on until they reached the gateway to India, the Indus River itself.
The Arabs in Egypt were also busy with their transformation of the province into a Muslim stronghold. They built a new capital which they named Fostat (modern Cairo) and continued westward to the former Roman province of North Africa. The Muslims captured Carthage and called the North African inhabitants Berbers who were quickly recruited as part of their army.
The Persian king Yazdegerd was still on the run and wandered around some parts of his former empire to elude the Arab army at his heels. He and his whole court went to Khorasan to seek refuge, but he was murdered by a stonecutter after he fled assassins sent by the governor of Khorasan. His death officially ended the rule of the Sassanid dynasty of Persia and started the rule of the Rashidun caliphate in Persia.
By 644 AD, the assassination of Omar left the position of the Caliph vacant. Uthman, one of the Prophet’s companions, took over as Caliph, but his government was so mired in corruption that he earned the resentment of the people. He was so hated that when he was brutally assassinated by the people of Medina, his body was left to rot in the courtyard for three days; they also refused to have him buried in a Muslim cemetery. He was buried instead in a Jewish cemetery. Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, replaced Uthman, but his rule was met with hostility by the Banu Ummaya clan led by one of the Prophet’s wives, Aisha. This struggle for power ended with Ali’s assassination, and he was replaced by Muawiyah, a member of the Banu Ummaya clan as caliph.
Most of North Africa had converted to Islam by the early 700 AD, and the caliph Al-Malik ordered the new converts, the Berbers, to learn and speak Arabic. The new religion and language cemented Arabs and Berbers together. The Berbers would later serve in the Muslim army during the conquest of Hispania.
Picture By Mohammad adil at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5031572
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton 2010.
Kaegi, Walter Emil. Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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