The Spread of Islam and its Relationship to Medieval Europe

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The Spread of Islam and its Relationship to Medieval Europe

Growth of Islam.

When Islam first emerged in Arabia during the mid-seventh century, there was little indication that within 150 years the movement would come to dominate the entire Middle East, as well as northern Africa and Spain. The early spread of Islam was directly linked to the revelations and work of the Prophet Muhammad who preached religious and moral reform throughout Arabia between 610 and 632 c.e. However, the origins of the movement were fraught with struggle. Acceptance of the faith in the polytheistic city of Mecca along with much of the rest of Arabia was gradually accomplished after a series of military campaigns, treaties, and non-violent pilgrimages undertaken by the newly formed Ummah (the gathered community of believers). The earliest Muslims were scorned in the major trade center of Mecca and began assembling their community under the leadership of Muhammad at the more northerly city of Yathrib in the Arabian peninsula. Several generations of the Prophet's successors (known as caliphs) during the eighth century spread the faith through both religious and political programs into North Africa, the Middle East, and even as far as Spain. Still, despite its widespread geographic success, until about the year 1000 Islam was more of an administrative presence than an ideology that had won over the majority of the populace. In many areas, the growth of converts was gradual, perhaps because (at least until the twelfth century) the Muslim conquerors seemed quite tolerant of other faiths. It has also been suggested that political, economic, and military control of strategic geographic locations was more important than converting entire populations. Forced conversion to Islam was not practiced in many non-pagan areas, especially where Jews and Christians were living in newly occupied Muslim territories. In fact, they were often referred to as the "People of the Book," since all three traditions shared common elements in their sacred scriptures and traced their heritage back to the figure of Abraham. While members of other faiths were often tolerated, they usually were not allowed to participate in government and had to pay special but not exorbitant taxes. The cultures and faiths affected by the early growth of Islam were quite diverse: not only the formerly polytheistic people of Arabia, but the Coptic Christians in North Africa, Eastern Orthodox in Palestine and Asia Minor, Roman Christians in Spain, Nestorian and Arian Christians in the Holy Land, polytheistic Berber tribes in North Africa, and Jews of various kinds throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East all became subjects of Muslim caliphates. By the year 1000 it is believed that nearly eighty percent of the population in the Dar-al-Islam (Islamic territory) had converted to faith in Allah as it had been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century and handed down through succeeding generations by way of the holy Koran (Qur'an).

Elements of Islamic Belief.

Requirements for participation in the religion of Islam were not extreme compared to some Jewish and Christian practices. The Muslim theological notion that people tended to be "forgetful" of Allah (God) seemed to be reinforced by directives for prayer five times a day (salat) and a month-long season of fasting (sawm) during the season of Ramadan. However, the most important religious act was that of simple belief, reciting the creed or confession of faith (shahadah), that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet." Almsgiving (zakat) was also expected of Muslims, charity both to the poor and in support of religious institutions. Although these were not practices all people readily desired to embrace, the potential for reward seemed not to be fraught with as many of the complex and confusing doctrines or laws as existed in Christianity and Judaism. Those who followed without question the teaching of the Prophet and the will of Allah were assured eternal paradise. As time passed, the Islamic holy book, the Koran, began to be seen as an infallible scripture, the mother of all books, the literal word of Allah, sealed as the final revelation that humans will ever need. Islamic law (or shari'a) seems not to have been divided between separate religious and civil realms. By the ninth century, law began to be viewed as descending not only from the authority of God's scripture but also from the practices and sayings of the Prophet (sunna), which were handed down orally and eventually written into the Hadith. Added to this law was the ijma or traditions of historic Islamic communities. Later works like the ninth-century Tasfsir became important commentaries on the Koran and formed the basis for Islamic theology.

Dynasties and Religious Divisions.

Islamic presence in Spain appeared at a very early juncture during the evolution of the major Muslim dynasties. The presence of the Umayyad Dynasty, which began in Damascus in the middle eighth century and continued in Spain until the eleventh century, put Muslim Spain (known as al-Andalus or Andalusia) into commercial contact with the North African coast, Palestine, and Syria. This led to the development of flourishing trade centers and a period of artistic and intellectual growth. Under the Umayyads, Jewish merchants enjoyed more tolerance than in Christian states, although persecution increased with the arrival of the Almoravids in the eleventh century and the Almohads in the twelfth, each of whom brought their own cultures and customs to the interpretation of Islam. There were also major religious divisions within Islam that began to emerge after 1000. The Sunni and Shi'ite positions, which go back to seventh-century disputes over the requirements for who might succeed the prophet Muhammad as caliph and still divide Islam today, became strongly linked to ideological and political separations dictating the way Islam would be practiced and perceived. The Sunni, who were in the majority, most often preferred to be directed by teachers, scholars, preachers, and government officials. They subscribed to interpretations of an eternal and uncreated Koran, the word of Allah, which was to be obeyed without question, but expressed concepts of an Allah that could not be completely known to humankind. The Shi'ites, making up roughly a fifth of medieval Muslims, had migrated toward stricter and even more literal interpretations of Islamic law and ideology, as well as relying upon religious leadership that was more charismatic. The mystical branch of Islam called Sufism, which began as more of a monastic movement in the eighth and ninth centuries, became popular among individuals who rejected the formalized trappings of Islamic religious life and were looking for more inward and personal expressions concerning their relationship with Allah.

Law and Philosophy.

There were no priests with sacramental powers in Islam, as individuals were considered accountable directly to Allah and needed no spiritual intermediaries. Any devout Muslim could lead prayer, so that all were regarded as equal in the eyes of Allah. However, certain dynasties subscribed to the notion of a mahdi (that is, a divinely guided savior or messiah) who might bring justice and righteousness to the earth, restoring the true and proper message of Allah, if one would only follow his lead. The observance of religious law became most important, particularly as a variety of dynasties began to compete with each other for political control of Arabia, Persia, North Africa, Spain, and Asia Minor. As early as the eighth century, Muslim schools sprang up which were devoted to examining the roots of Muslim law. This process was called ijtihad, meaning a strenuous examination. Sunni schools of religious law called madhhabs began to emerge which would establish norms for Muslim practice. Four distinct schools came into being at the major centers of Damascus, Medina, Baghdad, and al-Andalus. The growth of learning centers and formalized education as well as interest in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy began to create divisions in Islam and give rise to a host of theological debates. Unlike the Christian scholars, the organization of knowledge for medieval Muslims took in separate religious and non-religious categories. However, like Christian scholastics, there were prominent Muslim philosophers, such as Al-Ghazali (b. 1058) in Baghdad, Averroës (1126–1198) in Spain, and Avicenna (980–1037) in Persia, who struggled to reconcile the notions of faith and human reason. The numerous advances of Muslim thinkers had important influence on philosophers in the Christian West. Based upon the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Islamic examination of natural and metaphysical truths attempted to link everything in the universe to Allah.

Conflicts with Christianity.

During the first several centuries of Muslim control over the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims were able to visit the sacred sites with relative freedom. Their overland route usually took them across southeastern Europe, through Hungarian territory, Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), and Syria. Those who traveled by sea landed in Egypt or directly in Palestine. The growing threat of the Muslim presence on the border of the Byzantine (Eastern Christian) Empire and the loss of Byzantine control over the Holy Land served as a pretext for the Christians initiating the Crusades, which were in part due to religious ideological differences (Pope Urban II characterized the First Crusade as the will of God), but not completely driven by a desire to eradicate Islam. The factor most likely responsible for the early successes of the Christian invasions of the Holy Land was the internal disorder among the various Muslim dynasties, several of which were on the brink of controlling the area. Since the concept of the "Crusades" is something that developed from a European mindset, Muslims did not write their history about the wars for the Holy Land in the same way as Christians. These conflicts are more or less seen as any other wars with an invading enemy (most particularly in this case the French or "Franks"). The idea of jihad, struggling or fighting to maintain excellence (or striving for an ideal society in which Islam might flourish), is present almost from the beginning of Muslim thought, but not in terms of physical battle as much as a spiritual and a collective duty expected of all Muslims. Emphasis was upon the "greater jihad," that is the struggle within oneself. The "lesser jihad" was connected to the idea of the physical struggles on the path to God. Endeavors connected to the "lesser jihad," such as mission effort, good works, building mosques, even ideas such as physically overcoming the enemies of the faith, would not become significant to Muslim theology and ideology until the twelfth century. Those who lived in the part of the Islamic world that was spreading the faith were, for example, linked to the ongoing missionary activity in the Dar al-harb (the abode of conquest or expansion). Throughout its early history, Islam did carry out large-scale military conquest, but the term jihad as specifically connected to holy war only began to appear much later, at the time of the Second Crusade (1146–1148), in response to the Christian military threats.


Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

P. M. Holt, Ann K. Lambdon, and Bernard Lewis, eds., The Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

The Koran Interpreted. Trans. A. J. Arberry (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

J. J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge, 1978).

see also Philosophy: Philosophy among the Muslims and the Jews ; Visual Arts: Spanish Culture and the Muslims

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The Spread of Islam and its Relationship to Medieval Europe

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