A History of Islam
by Ryan Reeves
In AD 622, Muhammad and his followers took flight from Mecca to Medina—an event known as the Hijra. This date is seen as the beginning point of the Islamic faith.
It is the start not only of the Islamic calendar but also of Islam’s vision of an expanded rule of Allah over the globe, with new regions converted and the enemies of the faith overthrown. The name of the religion, too, is pregnant with meaning: Islam means “surrender” or “submission.” So a follower of Islam is one who surrenders to the will of Allah. The history of Islam ever since, however, has been shaped by the tales of those who have striven to see the expansion of their faith in lands that do not know the Qur’an or its teachings.
Immediately after the death of Muhammad in AD 632, Islam experienced its first political division. The central question concerned who would take up the mantle of leadership with the passing of Muhammad. This division led to the formation of two branches within Islam: the Sunnis, who believe the caliphate (leadership of the Muslim community) fell to Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s father-in-law) and the Shiites, who believe it fell to Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law). The balance of these two branches, however, has never been much of a contest. Of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, nearly 90 percent adhere to the Sunni branch.
This division is more than a difference in name or structure. The dominant Sunni successors, beginning with Abu Bakr, launched a series of expansions, first within the Arabian territories, and then by invasions into lands to their west and east. Through a combination of shrewd tactics and swift horses, their armies were nearly always successful. Within a century of Muhammad’s death, Islam had conquered vast swaths of former Roman Christian areas, from modern-day Spain to the border of the Indian subcontinent—nearly five million square miles of territory. Of course, Christians throughout the world saw these lands, not as religiously neutral, but as painful losses to their historic faith. (In some of these areas, the Christian presence dated back to New Testament times.) But the caliphate system and the military operations that it oversaw were simply too dominant to withstand.
During this early phase, the expansion of Islam into the West was halted only at the Battle of Tours (AD 732), in the heart of modern-day France. The hero of Tours was Charles Martel—Charles “the Hammer”—a son in the Merovingian line of the newer Frankish kingdoms, who were Nicene Christian. Already, the mingling of faith and war was beginning. Laurels were placed at Charles’ feet as the victor of the Christian faith against Islam, though the victory was hollow given the rising fear about the threat of further attacks. But it was Tours that sparked some of the earliest animosity between Islamic and Western kingdoms.
Unmoved by the setback in France, the early Islamic kingdoms worked double time to conquer Christian lands under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. Westerners should remember that the lands of Asia Minor, Egypt, and North Africa at this time were majority Christian, with a lineage of Christian theology and church life that extended centuries into the past. (Augustine was from North Africa, and the great ecumenical creeds were written mostly in Asia Minor.) The situation was bleak for Christians in these lands, due in large part to the rise of perhaps the most influential and important kingdom in the history of Islam: the Abbasid caliphate. The Abbasid house assumed control early in Islamic history and then established the city of Baghdad as its capital. From 750 to 1517—the year Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses—Islamic culture experienced a golden age under the Abbasid dynasty. Many of the stories of advanced Islamic civilization, philosophy, architecture, and the sciences originate from this period under Abbasid rule.
The earliest history of Islam, therefore, was marked both by its conquest by the sword and the thickening of its cultural heritage that would shape the religion until today. Many of the lands Islam conquered remained religiously the same for centuries—though Christians, Jews, or pagans in these cities immediately found their world awash in Arabic names, while mosques quickly began to dot the cityscape. However, during the medieval period, the non-Islamic faiths in the conquered lands, especially Christianity, eventually became the minority.
Christians who witnessed the fall of these lands to Islam longed for an eventual response by Christian armies to retake these lands and free their brethren. In the end, the Crusades were launched.
The Crusades have often served as a blot on the history of the church—as a moment when grace gave way to violence. One of the great myths of the Crusades is that they alone galvanized Islam into a military force after a period of peaceful harmony, resulting in hostility with the West ever since. As we have seen, however, the relationship between Islamic and Christian empires was rarely peaceful. The medieval period was a bloody age for all involved, with many armies fighting under the banner of religion. Still, the Crusades were not the inauguration of violence between the West and Islam but rather its most definitive expression—one that lives on even today in popular imagination.
The First Crusade was officially called in 1096 by Pope Urban II. The pope was then meeting at the Council of Clermont, when an ambassador of the Byzantine emperor arrived to plead for help against the encroachment of Islamic armies. In response, Urban mounted the pulpit, preached a rousing sermon of the Christian need for an armed force to respond to this threat, and thereby launched the West into several hundred years’ worth of attempts to conquer and maintain jurisdiction in the Holy Land.
From the Christian perspective, these wars were justified in part because of the never-ending encroachment of Islamic forces into Christian lands, as well as the fear that Europe was next in line for assault if their Byzantine allies should fall into Islamic hands. Islam had not only attacked Spain and France, but also the coasts of Italy and other European centers. More importantly, the armies that marched for Jerusalem did not do so for the sake of plunder or other material gains. They went, they believed, as a relieving army to throw off the aggressive armies of Islam. When the crusading armies did eventually relieve Jerusalem in 1099, building a militarized state in the heart of Palestine, it was only a matter of time before the Islamic armies responded.
Islamic history, therefore, was shaped much by its attempts to retake these lands. The West, similarly, was shaped by its attempts to conquer lands. The West was correct that Islam had taken these regions by force, but efforts to reassert Christian rule were often just as hazardous. It is easy to blame Christian armies as the aggressors, but the faith of neither side’s armies managed to halt their attempts to wage total war. Both seemed to relish the fight: heroic sagas about Christian knights in the Holy Land are matched by Islamic stories of their heroic leaders. Perhaps the greatest legend for Islam was that of Saladin, leader of their armies during the Third Crusade against Richard the Lionheart and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. So heroic were Saladin’s exploits that the Saladin Eagle—a symbol of defiance at foreign intrusion—lives on today as an emblem of several Islamic nations and groups.
Throughout the medieval period, the once-fragmented Islamic regions began to grow increasingly united against the crusaders. The last attempt by European powers to launch a crusade was not in the medieval period but actually during the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17). Though the attempt failed to muster support for a crusade, the Abbasid caliphate was already waning and was soon to be replaced by another powerful dynasty: the Ottomans.
The role of the Ottoman Empire from 1550 to 1850 in shaping Western understanding of the history of Islam is important. Of course, not all of Islam during this period was Ottoman. Other dynasties rose and fell and spread the faith to various parts of Asia and throughout Africa. Still, the dominance of the Ottomans is without question, and their proximity to Russia and Europe provided them with the single greatest opportunity on the global scene to take the lead as an Islamic kingdom. Ottoman armies repeatedly threw themselves against Russia until roughly 1800, when the stress placed on the aging empire sent it into rapid decline.
As we reach the twenty-first century, then, the history of Islam has blown hot and cold in the minds of Western peoples. A survey of the medieval period and most of the Reformation era reveals a lurking fear about the threat of Islamic armies invading Europe. By 1900, though, the memory of these wars had grown dim. It was easy for someone before World War I to envision Islamic culture as little more than what they read in The Arabian Nights. All of this changed, however, with the sudden need for oil in the twentieth century, the fracturing of the Middle East into a number of Islamic states, and the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Islam, of course, has continued to expand globally, but the friction created by these modern issues has again raised the specter of the Arabic base of Islamic culture and its relationship to the West.