The expansion of the Islamic Caliphate. The deeper color notes the initial expansion of Islam under Muhammad.
By Periklis Deligiannis
The Arabs are one of the two main contemporary populations of the Semitic ethno-linguistic group (the Jews being the other one). The other modern populations who constitute that group are the Jews and the Semitic-speaking peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. However the latter are of Kushite origins. The cradle of the ancient Arabs is the extensive Peninsula still bearing their name (other theories place their cradle in southern Mesopotamia or Armenia). The northern Arabs – the inhabitants of the central and northern Arabian Peninsula – were a nomadic people with mainly livestock economy, who used to raid neighboring countries. Their language became the basis of the later classic Arabic. The southern Arabs whose language differed from the Northern Arabian one, were a settled people living in Southwestern Arabia, with a mixed agriculture and livestock economy. Since the beginnings of the first millennium BC, they developed a remarkable ancient culture (kingdoms of the Sabaeans [Saba, ‘Sheba’], of the Himyarites and others). The pre-Islamic Arabian religion was polytheistic and quite resembled the religions of other Semitic peoples.

Due to the Islamic domination in the countries of the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia), the Arabs assimilated the preexisting Semitic peoples, namely the Aramaeans, the Canaanites/Phoenicians, the descendants of the Assyro-Babylonians and others who almost all of them spoke the Aramaic language which completely dominated this region from the 2nd century B.C. and was much akin to Arabic. On the other hand, the modern Arabs of North Africa are not Semitic in origin in their overwhelming majority, being Arabicized descendants of Hamites, namely Egyptians and Libyans/Berbers (the latter in Libya and the Maghreb). However the Hamites are the closest relatives of the Semites and the Hamitic peoples have fully adopted the Arabic language and customs: the only exception are the Berbers of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali and a few other West African countries that have maintained their Hamitic language and customs but are profoundly influenced by the Arabic culture. The Arabs of Sudan, Mauritania, Mali, Zanzibar and other countries are mainly descendants of Arabicized Kushites, Berbers and black Africans.

The Arabs were well known in the Greco-Roman and the Iranian world. Several of their tribes migrated and settled in the Fertile Crescent before the Muslim conquest (until the 6th century AD). Such Arabic peoples were the Ituraeans, Saphaites (possibly a tribal offshoot of the Sabaeans), Nabataeans, Emeseni (of Emesa), Palmyrans, Hirani (of Hira), Gassanids, Lakhmids and others. After all, the Aramaic tribes who had settled in early Antiquity in the same area are considered by some scholars as proto-Arabic colonizers (I do not share this view although the Aramaeans were akin to the Arabs). In other cases, the existing Semitic tribes fused with the Arab newcomers giving them their tribal name, as in the case of the Aramaean Edomites (of Edom) who were Arabicized and became known as Idumaeans (a Hellenized version of the Aramaean “Edom”).

Maximum expansion of the Palmyran rule (around 269 AD). In 273 Palmyra was finally defeated by the Roman emperor Aurelian and never recovered.
The Nabataeans and the Palmyrenes (Palmyrans) founded powerful kingdoms. The Palmyrenes specifically were ethnically a fusion of Arabs and native Aramaeans and Amorites. In the 3rd century AD the Palmyrenes managed to threaten even the Roman rule in the Roman Middle East. King Odaenethus of Palmyra (Udhayna in Arabic) and his wife Zenobia (Zaynab) were two of the most important pre-Islamic Arab rulers. It is also most likely that the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab (244-249 AD) was of Arab origins, coming from the Roman territory of Arabia, in the southeast and south of Palestine. During the Byzantine period, the strongest Arabic tribes of the Fertile Crescent were the ones dwelling in the edges of the Arabo-Syrian Desert, mainly the Gassanids, the Lakhmids and the people of the Hira principality. The former were the main Arab allies-vassals (foederati) of the Byzantines, while the other two peoples were vassals of the Sassanids. However, shortly before the Islamic conquest of that region, the Gassanids and the Lakhmids were dissatisfied with the two empires that they were serving, thereby becoming valuable allies of their Muslim kinsmen when they appeared in Syria and Mesopotamia.

Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, the later Prophet Muhammad, was born in Mecca around 570 AD and was a member of the Hashemite clan, a branch of the Arabic tribe Quraysh. The king of Axum (Aksum) who already possessed lands in Arabia, tried to annex Mecca the year Muhammad was born, but his army was repelled by its citizens. The expansionism of the Sassanid and Axumite invaders in Arabian lands was an important motive for the clustering and integration of the Arabs in a single state, a condition that was finally achieved by their religious integration under the Islamic faith.
Muhammad was orphaned as a child, but according to the customs of that time, he was initially adopted by his grandfather and then by his uncle. Becoming an adult, he was involved in trade and through this employment he married the widow Khadijah. Khadijah was conducting transit trade through dealers with neighboring countries and already possessed great wealth. Their marriage was a happy one. Muhammad took over specifically the trade with Syria. Starting in 610 AD, he formed the religion of Islam. It was then that he began to lay the basic principles of the new monotheistic faith, a process which continued until his death with his teachings that became the text of the Quran.
The first followers of Islam came from Muhammad’s family and circle of friends. The new religion was a threat to the Quraysh tribe because it developed rapidly and reduced the traditional pagan faith and its main sanctuary, the Kaaba in Mecca. The Quraysh controlled the temple and the city and felt that their power was threatened. At first they were mocking Muhammad for his teachings, but when they saw that his teachings were popular, they took measures against him. These had no effect, so they pushed the Hashemite clan to expel Muhammad which they succeeded in 616. Muhammad no longer had the Hashemite protection and had to live for six years under constant threat, even for his own life.
Ιn 622 AD due to his fame as a honest and fair-minded man, he was invited by two clans of the neighboring city Yathrib to go there and arbitrate in a dispute between them. Muhammad and his Meccan followers finally settled in Yathrib, a development so crucial for Islam that the year 622 was called the year of Hegira (the “cut” from Mecca) and became the starting point of Muslim chronology. Muhammad gradually managed to proselytize more and more inhabitants of Yathrib. In this way the first Muslim state (Umma) was established, being the state of Yathrib (later renamed to Medina). Muhammad tried to convert the Jews of the city but he failed. In 623 he organized and launched the first raid against the trade caravans of his Quraysh-Meccan enemies. The latter counterattacked and confronted the Muslims in the battle of Badr, where they were defeated (624). It was the first Muslim military victory, though minor. The Quraysh were alarmed by their failure and counterattacked again. Their skilled warlord Khalid ibn al-Walid led 3,000 men against Yathrib and achieved a limited victory at Uhud (625).

early muslim warriorsA satisfactory depiction of 7th century Arab warriors with their characteristic austere equipment, from the movie “The Message” of Moustapha Akkad (1976).

The final showdown took place in the following year in the “Battle of the Trench.” The Meccans under Abu Sufyan campaigned against Yathrib gathering 10,000 Bedouins warriors, a large number considering the small population of the Arabian Peninsula at that period. They besieged the city but their attacks were repelled by the Muslims. The Quraysh were soundly defeated and the power of Mecca began to decline in favor of Yathrib and Muhammad. The Yathriban Jews went on rejecting Islam: Muhammad expelled them from the city and because of this he changed the orientation of the Islamic pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Mecca. The Muslim state of Yathrib was rapidly strengthened, expanding its authority to the neighboring nomadic tribes and to the Jewish community of the oasis Khaybar which was conquered by siege.
The power of the Meccans- Quraysh continuously decreased: they were finally forced to sign with Muhammad the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah (628). With its implementation, the Quraysh allowed the Meccan Muslims who had taken refuge in Yathrib to visit their birthplace. A sentiment of defeatism gradually conquered the Meccans and until 630 many of their upper class fled to Muhammad and embraced Islam. In the year 630, the attack of some allies of Mecca against some allies of Yathrib gave to Muhammad the opportunity to cancel the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. He marched with 10,000 warriors against Mecca, which he occupied almost without resistance. Moreover, many Meccans were already supporting him. Muhammad and his warriors ritually marched around the Kaaba sanctuary. Then he gave orders to destroy the idols that were inside the temple and banned their worship: thus Kaaba became sacred to Islam. Many Meccans became Muslims, although Muhammad did not ask for it.

Periklis Deligiannis