The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road to Revolution

The rise of Islam took place in a world that had seen a hundred years of turmoil, dissent and catastrophe. In 541, a century before the Prophet Muimageammad began to receive a series of divine revelations, it was news of a different threat that spread panic through the Mediterranean. It moved like lightning, so fast that by the time panic set in, it was already too late. No one was spared. The scale of death was barely imaginable. According to one contemporary who lost most of his family, one city on the Egyptian border was wiped out: seven men and one ten-year-old boy were all who remained of a once bustling population; the doors of houses hung open, with no one to guard the gold, silver and precious objects inside.1 Cities bore the brunt of the savage attacks, with 10,000 people being killed each day in Constantinople at one point in the mid-540s.2 It was not just the Roman Empire that suffered. Before long cities in the east were being ravaged too, as disaster spread along the communication and trade networks, devastating cities in Persian Mesopotamia and eventually reaching China.3 Bubonic plague brought catastrophe, despair and death.

It also brought chronic economic depression: fields denuded of farmers, towns stripped of consumers and a generation scythed down in their youth naturally altered the demography of late antiquity, and caused a severe contraction of the economy.4 In due course, this was to have an impact on the way emperors in Constantinople sought to conduct foreign policy. During the first part of the reign of Justinian (527–65), the empire had been able to achieve a series of stunning successes that saw the recovery of the provinces of North Africa and significant progress in Italy. Judicious use of force was coupled with deliberate efforts to retain the flexibility needed to deal with problems that could flare up at any time on its extended borders, including in the east. Striking this balance became increasingly difficult later during Justinian’s reign as manpower shortages, inconclusive military campaigns and rising costs drained a treasury that was already depleted before the plague struck.5

Stagnation took hold and the public mood towards Justinian soured. Particularly fierce criticism was reserved for the way he seemed willing to buy the friendship of the empire’s neighbours by paying out money and promiscuously bestowing favours. Justinian was foolish enough to think it ‘a stroke of good fortune to be dishing out the wealth of the Romans and flinging it to the barbarians’, wrote Procopius, the scathing, and most prominent, historian of Justinian’s reign. The Emperor, Procopius remorselessly went on, ‘lost no opportunity to lavish vast sums of money on all the barbarians’, to the north, south, east and west; cash was dispatched, the author went on, to peoples who had never even been heard of before.6

Justinian’s successors abandoned this approach and took a strident and uncompromising line with Rome’s neighbours. When ambassadors from the Avars, one of the great tribes of the steppes, arrived in Constantinople shortly after Justinian’s death in 565 to ask for their usual payment of tribute, they met with short shrift from the new Emperor, Justin II: ‘Never again shall you be loaded at the expense of this empire, and go your way without doing us any service; for from me you shall receive nothing.’ When they threatened consequences, the Emperor exploded: ‘Do you dead dogs dare to threaten the Roman realm? Learn that I will shave off those locks of yours, and then cut off your heads.’7

A similarly aggressive stance was taken towards Persia, especially after it was reported that a powerful constellation of Türk nomads had taken the Huns’ place on the Central Asian steppe and was putting pressure on their eastern frontiers. The Türks were playing an increasingly dominant role in trade, much to the annoyance of the Chinese, who portrayed them as difficult and untrustworthy – a sure sign of their rising commercial success.8 They were led by the magnificent figure of Sizabul, who took to receiving dignitaries in an elaborate tent while reclining on a gold bed supported by four gold peacocks and with a large wagon brimming with silver conspicuously positioned near by.9

The Türks had extensive ambitions and dispatched envoys to Constantinople in order to propose a long-range military alliance. A joint attack, ambassadors told Justin II, would destroy Persia.10 Eager to win glory at the expense of Constantinople’s traditional rival and encouraged by the prospects, the Emperor agreed to the plan and became increasingly grandiloquent, issuing threats to the Shah and demanding the return of towns and territories ceded under previous agreements. After a poorly executed strike by the Romans had failed, a Persian counter-attack made for Dara (the site of which is now in southern Turkey), the cornerstone of the border defences. After a terrible siege lasting six months the Persians succeeded in taking the city in 574, whereupon the Emperor experienced a mental and physical breakdown.11

The fiasco convinced the Türks that Constantinople was an unworthy and unreliable ally, something the Türk ambassador stated point-blank in 576, angrily rejecting any chance of another attack on Persia. After putting ten fingers in his mouth, he said angrily: ‘As there are now ten fingers in my mouth, so you Romans have used many tongues.’ Rome had deceived the Türks by promising to do their best against Persia; the results had been pitiful.12

All the same, this reopening of hostilities with Persia marked the start of a tumultuous period that had extraordinary consequences. Two decades of fighting followed, with moments of high drama, such as when a Persian army penetrated deep into Asia Minor, before returning home. As it did so, it was ambushed, with the queen taken prisoner, along with the royal golden carriage that was decorated with precious gems and pearls. The sacred fire the Persian ruler took with him on campaign, considered to be ‘greater than all fires’, was captured and thrown into a river, while the Zoroastrian high priest and a ‘multitude of the most senior people’ were drowned – perhaps forcibly. The extinguishing of the sacred fire was an aggressive and provocative act, designed to belittle the religious cornerstone of Persian identity. The news was celebrated with wild enthusiasm by the Romans and their allies.13

As hostilities continued, religion became increasingly important. When troops revolted over a proposed reduction in pay, for example, the commanding officer paraded a sacred image of Jesus in front of the troops to impress on them that serving the Emperor meant serving God. When Shah Khusraw I died in 579 some claimed, without any foundation, ‘that the light of the divine Word shone splendidly around him, for he believed in Christ’.14 Stiffening attitudes led to vociferous denunciations of Zoroastrianism in Constantinople as base, false and depraved: the Persians, wrote Agathias, have acquired ‘deviant and degenerate habits ever since they came under the spell of the teaching of Zoroaster’.15

Infusing militarism with a heavy dose of religiosity had implications for those on the periphery of the empire who had been courted and converted to Christianity as part of a deliberate policy to win their support and loyalty.16Particular effort had been made to win over the tribes of southern and western Arabia with the promise of material rewards. The bestowal of royal titles, which introduced new concepts of kinship (and kingship) that could be powerfully exploited locally, also helped convince many to throw their lot in with Constantinople.17

The stiffening of religious sensibilities during the confrontation with Persia therefore had consequences – because the Christianity adopted by some of the tribes was not that of the formula agreed at Chalcedon in 451, but a version or versions that held different views about the unity of Christ. Relations with the Ghassānids, Rome’s long-term allies in Arabia, soured as a result of the strident messages emanating from the imperial capital.18 Partly because of mutual religious suspicions, relations broke down at this sensitive moment – which provided the Persians with a perfect opportunity to exploit. Control was gained over the ports and markets of southern and western Arabia, as a new overland trade route was opened up connecting Persia with Mecca and imageUkāimage. According to the Islamic tradition, this dislocation prompted a leading figure in Mecca to approach Constantinople with a request for nomination as the phylarch, or guardian, of the city as Rome’s representative, with a later, royal title of a kingship of Mecca being awarded by the Emperor to a certain imageUthmān. A parallel process saw the appointment of a nominee to take a similar role in Yathrib – on behalf of Persia.19

While these tensions were crystallising in the Arabian peninsula, little progress was being made in the long-drawn-out war in its main theatre in the north. The turning point came not on the battlefield but at the Persian court at the end of the 580s, when Vahrām, a popular general who had stabilised the eastern frontier with the Türks, took matters into his own hands and revolted against the Shah, Khusraw II. The Shah fled to Constantinople where he promised the Emperor Maurice major concessions in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia – including the return of Dara – in exchange for imperial support. After Khusraw had returned home in 591, and dealt with his rival with surprisingly little ado, he set about honouring his agreement. It was, as one leading scholar has put it, a Versailles moment: too many towns, forts and important locations were handed over to the Romans, exposing the economic and administrative heartlands of Persia; the humiliation was so great that it was bound to provoke a vigorous response.20

The pendulum had swung both ways during intense fighting over the previous two decades. It looked to all intents and purposes as if Rome had secured a great diplomatic and political coup. Now that it had the forward bases that had previously been lacking, it finally had the chance to establish a permanent presence in the Near East. As the historian Procopius recognised, the plains of Mesopotamia that fanned out across the massive basin of the Tigris and Euphrates provided few obvious frontier points in the form of rivers, lakes or mountains.21 This meant any gains made were vulnerable unless a giant swathe of territory could be annexed and held. Khusraw II may have regained the throne, but it came at a high price.

And yet barely a decade later the tables turned spectacularly. When Emperor Maurice was murdered by Phokas, one of his generals, in a palace coup in 602, Khusraw II seized the moment to strike and force a renegotiation. He gained confidence after a fierce attack on Dara knocked out a vital point in the Roman defensive system in northern Mesopotamia and again from Phokas’ struggle to impose authority at home. When reports came that a new wave of nomad attacks was ravaging the Balkans, the Shah raised his ambitions. The traditional client-management system that was used to govern the subject peoples of northern Arabia was hastily dismantled in anticipation of a major reorganisation of the frontier that would follow Persian expansion.22

The Christian population was handled carefully. Bishops had learnt from experience to fear the prospect of war, since hostilities with the Romans were often accompanied by accusations of collaboration. The Shah personally presided over the election of a new patriarch in 605, inviting the senior clergy to meet and choose a new incumbent. This was a deliberate signal to provide reassurance and to show the minority population that their ruler was sympathetic to their affairs. It was an effective move, interpreted by the Christian community as a sign of benevolent protection: Khusraw was effusively thanked by the bishops, who gathered together to praise ‘the powerful, generous, kind and bounteous King of Kings’.23

With the Roman Empire buckling under one internal revolt after another, Persian forces turned the screw: cities in Mesopotamia fell like dominoes, with Edessa the last capitulating in 609. Attention then turned to Syria. Antioch, the great city on the Orontes, first See of St Peter and the major metropolis of Roman Syria, fell in 610, followed by Emesa in western Syria the following year. With the fall of Damascus in 613, another great regional centre was lost.

Things only got worse. In Constantinople, the unpopular and hubristic Phokas was murdered, his naked and dismembered remains paraded through the city’s streets. The new Emperor, Heraclius, however, proved no more effective in halting the Persians, whose advances had by now acquired a devastating momentum. After defeating a Roman counter-attack in Asia Minor, the Shah’s armies turned south to Jerusalem. The aim was obvious: to capture the most holy city in Christendom and, in doing so, to assert the cultural and religious triumph of Persia.

When the city fell after a short siege, in May 614, the reaction in the Roman world bordered on hysteria. The Jews were accused not just of collaborating with the Persians but of actively supporting them. According to one source, the Jews were ‘like evil beasts’, helping the invading army – themselves compared to ferocious animals and hissing snakes. They were accused of playing an active role in massacring the local population who piously rejoiced as they died ‘because they were being slain for Christ’s sake and shed their blood for His blood’. Stories spread that churches were being pulled down, crosses trampled underfoot and icons spat on. The True Cross on which Jesus was crucified was captured and sent back to the Persian capital as a trophy of war par excellence for Khusraw. This was a truly disastrous turn of events for Rome, and one that the Emperor’s propagandists immediately turned their attention to in an attempt to limit the damage.24

Faced with such setbacks, Heraclius considered abdicating, before deciding to take desperate measures: ambassadors were sent to Khusraw to seek peace on any terms. Through the envoys, Heraclius begged for forgiveness and blamed his predecessor, Phokas, for Rome’s recent acts of aggression. Presenting himself as a submissive inferior, the Roman ruler hailed the Shah as ‘supreme Emperor’. Khusraw listened carefully to what the envoys had to say; then he had them executed.25

When news filtered back, panic gripped Constantinople, enabling radical reforms to be pushed through with barely a flicker of opposition. The salaries of the empire’s officials were halved, as was the pay of the military. The free distribution of bread, a long-standing political tool to win the goodwill of the capital’s inhabitants, was stopped.26 Precious metals were seized from churches in a frantic effort to boost the exchequer. In order to underline the scale of the battle ahead and atone for the sins that had led God to chastise and punish the Romans, Heraclius modified the design of the coinage. While the bust of the Emperor on the obverse remained the same, on the reverse of new coins, minted in large volumes and in new denominations, was the image of a cross set on steps: the fight against the Persians was nothing less than the fight to defend the Christian faith.27

In the short term, these measures achieved little. After securing Palestine, the Persians turned to the Nile delta, taking Alexandria in 619.28 In less than two years, Egypt – the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and bedrock of the Roman agrarian economy for six centuries – fell. Next came Asia Minor, which was attacked in 622. Although the advance was checked for a time, by 626 the Persian army was camped within sight of the walls of Constantinople. As if that were not bad enough for the Romans, the Shah made an alliance with the Avar nomads who had overrun the Balkans and had marched on the city from the north. All that now separated the remnants of imperial Rome from complete annihilation was the thickness of the walls of the city of the great Constantine – Constantinople, New Rome. The end was nigh; and it seemed utterly inevitable.

Chance though was on Heraclius’ side. Initial efforts to take the city failed, and subsequent assaults were beaten away with ease. The enemies’ commitment began to sag, failing first among the Avars. Having struggled to pasture their horses, the nomads withdrew when tribal differences threatened to undermine their leader’s authority. The Persians pulled back soon afterwards too, in part because of reports of Türk attacks in the Caucasus that required attention: impressive territorial expansion had overstretched resources, leaving newly conquered lands dangerously exposed – and the Türks knew it. Constantinople had been spared by the skin of its teeth.29

In an astonishing counter-attack, Heraclius, who had been leading the imperial army in Asia Minor during the siege of his capital, now tore after the retreating enemy. The Emperor first made for the Caucasus, where he met the Türk Khagan and agreed an alliance – showering him with honours and gifts, and offering him his daughter, Eudokia, as a bride to formalise ties of friendship.30 The Emperor then threw caution to the wind and moved south, crushing a large Persian army near Nineveh (in what is now northern Iraq) in the autumn of 627, before advancing on Ctesiphon as opposition melted away.

The Persian leadership creaked under the pressure. Khusraw was murdered, while his son and successor, Kavad, appealed to Heraclius for an immediate settlement.31 The Emperor was satisfied by the promise of territory and kudos and withdrew to Constantinople, leaving his ambassador to agree terms, which included the return of Roman territory that had been seized during the wars – and also the return of the parts of the True Cross that had been taken from Jerusalem in 614.32 It marked a spectacular and crushing victory for the Romans.

This was not the end of it, however, for a storm was brewing which was to bring Persia to the brink of collapse. The senior general in the field, Shahrbarāz, who had masterminded the recent lightning assault on Egypt, reacted to the reversal of fortune by mounting a bid for the throne. With Persian fortunes at a low ebb and with the frontier in the east vulnerable to opportunistic attacks by Türk raiders, the case for a man of action seemed irresistible. As the coup gathered pace, the general negotiated directly with Heraclius to gain Roman support for his uprising, withdrawing from Egypt and moving on Ctesiphon with the Emperor’s support.

With the situation in Persia unravelling, Heraclius celebrated with gusto the astonishing reversal of fortune to cement his popularity. He had played heavily on religion to build support and stiffen resolve during the empire’s dark hours. Khusraw’s attack had been explained as a direct assault on Christianity, something underlined emphatically in a piece of theatre enacted before the imperial troops, in which a letter was read out that appeared to be written in the Shah’s own hand: it not only personally ridiculed Heraclius, but scoffed at the powerlessness of the Christians’ God.33 The Romans had been challenged to fight for what they believed in: this had been a war of religion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Roman triumphalism produced ugly scenes. After Heraclius had led a ceremonial entry into Jerusalem in March 630 and restored the fragments of the True Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jews were supposedly baptised by force, as punishment for the role they were thought to have played in the fall of the city sixteen years earlier; those who fled were banned from coming within three miles of Jerusalem.34 Eastern Christians whose beliefs were judged to be non-conformist were targeted too by imperial agents, being obliged to abandon long-standing doctrinal positions and coerced into accepting the teachings of streamlined Orthodox Christianity that now claimed to have powerful evidence that it alone truly enjoyed God’s blessing.35

This was problematic for the church in Persia, which had not seen eye to eye with its western peer for more than a century and whose senior clergy increasingly saw themselves as the transmitters of the true faith – in contrast to the church in the west which had been systemically corrupted by deviant teachings. As the bishops of Persia put it when they met in 612, all major heresies had sprung up in the Roman Empire – unlike in Persia, where ‘no heresy has ever arisen’.36 So when Heraclius ‘restored the church to the orthodox’ in Edessa and gave instructions to drive out the eastern Christians who had worshipped there in the past, it looked as though his plan was to convert all of Persia – an idea Heraclius seems to have been actively pondering since the dramatic turn of fortune. And it was to be converted into Roman, western Christianity.37

The resurgent, dominant religion championed by Constantinople had swept all before it. The extraordinary sequence of events had left a host of old ideas in tatters. When plague broke out in Ctesiphon, claiming Shah Kavad as a victim, it seemed obvious that Zoroastrianism was little more than wishful thinking: Christianity was the true faith, and its followers had been rewarded.38 In this highly charged atmosphere, a new rumbling could be heard. It came from the south, from deep inside the Arabian peninsula. This region had been all but untouched by the recent fighting between the Romans and Persians, but that did not mean that it was unaffected by the monumental clashes taking place hundreds of miles away. In fact, the south-west of the heel of Arabia had long been a crucible for confrontation between the two empires, where less than a century earlier the kingdom of imageimyar and the cities of Mecca and Medina had thrown in their lot with Persia against a Christian coalition of forces from Constantinople and imageimyar’s deadly Red Sea rival, Ethiopia.39

This was a region where beliefs had been changing, adapting and competing with each other for the best part of a century. What had been a polytheist world of multiple deities, idols and beliefs had given way to monotheism and to ideas about a single, all-powerful deity. Sanctuaries dedicated to multiple gods were becoming so marginalised that one historian has stated that on the eve of the rise of Islam traditional polytheism ‘was dying’. In its place came Jewish and Christian concepts of a single, all-powerful God – as well as of angels, paradise, prayer and alms-giving which can be found in inscriptions that begin to proliferate across the Arabian peninsula in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.40

It was in this region, as war raged to the north, that a trader named Muimageammad, a member of the Banū Hāshim clan of the Quraysh tribe, retreated to a cave not far from the city of Mecca to contemplate. According to the Islamic tradition, in 610 he began to receive a series of revelations from God. Muimageammad heard a voice that commanded him to recite verses ‘in the name of your Lord!’41 Panicked and confused, he left the cave, but saw a man ‘feet astride the horizon’, and a voice that boomed at him: ‘O Muimageammad, thou art the prophet of God and I am Jibrīl.’42 A series of recitations followed over the coming years that were first written down around the middle of the seventh century in a single text – known as the Qurimageān.43

God sends apostles, Muimageammad was told by the angel Jibrīl (or Gabriel), to deliver good news or to give warnings.44 Muimageammad had been chosen as a messenger by the Almighty. There was much darkness in the world, he was told, many things to fear, and the danger of apocalypse at every corner. Recite the divine messages, he was urged, for when you do so you ‘seek refuge in [Allah] from accursed Satan: no power has he over those who believe and put their trust in their Lord.’45 God is compassionate and merciful, Muimageammad was repeatedly told, but He is also severe in his punishment for those who refuse to obey him.46

The sources relating to the early Islamic period are complex and pose serious problems of interpretation.47 Establishing how contemporary and later political motivations shaped the story of Muimageammad and the messages he received is not easy – and, what is more, is a matter of intense debate among modern scholars. It is difficult, for example, to understand clearly what role belief played in shaping attitudes and events, not least since distinctions were made as early as the middle of the seventh century between believers (mu’minūn) and those who joined them and submitted to their authority (muslimūn). Later writers focused closely on the role of religion and emphasised not only the power of spiritual revelation but also the solidarity of the Arabs who effected revolution – with the result that it is as unsatisfactory to talk of the conquests of the period as ‘Muslim’ as it is to refer to them as ‘Arab’. Moreover, identities not only shifted after this period, but during it too – and of course we are reliant on the eyes of the beholders for such labels in the first place.

Nevertheless, although even establishing a secure sequence of events can be problematic, there is a wide acceptance that Muimageammad was not the only figure in the Arabian peninsula in the early seventh century to talk about a single God, for there were other ‘copycat prophets’ who rose to prominence in precisely the period of the Perso-Roman wars. The most notable offered messianic and prophetic visions that were strikingly similar to those of Muimageammad – promising revelations from the angel Gabriel, pointing to paths to salvation and in some cases offering holy writings to back their claims up.48 It was a time when Christian churches and shrines were starting to appear in and around Mecca, as is clear from the archaeological record, which also bears witness to icons and cemeteries of the new converted populations. Competition for hearts, minds and souls was fierce in this region in this period.49

There is also growing consensus that Muimageammad was preaching to a society that was experiencing acute economic contraction as a result of the Perso-Roman Wars.50 The confrontation and the effective militarisation of Rome and Persia had an important impact on trade originating in or passing through the imageijāz. With government expenditure funnelled into the army and chronic pressure on the domestic economies to support the war effort, demand for luxury items must have fallen considerably. The fact that the traditional markets, above all the cities in the Levant and in Persia, were caught up in the fighting can only have further depressed the economy of southern Arabia.51

Few would have felt the pinch more than the Quraysh of Mecca, whose caravans carrying gold and other valuables to Syria had been the stuff of legend. They also lost their lucrative contract to supply the Roman army with the leather needed for saddles, strapping for boots and shields, belts and more besides.52 Their livelihood too may have been further threatened by a decline in pilgrims visiting the haram, an important shrine dedicated to pagan gods located in Mecca. The site was centred on a series of idols – reportedly including one ‘of Abraham as an old man’ – but the most important of which was a red agate statue of a man with a golden right hand and with seven divinatory arrows around it.53 As guardians of Mecca, the Quraysh did well from selling food and water to visitors and performing rituals for pilgrims. With upheaval in Syria and Mesopotamia having repercussions further beyond, and disruption in so many different aspects of daily life, it was not surprising that Muimageammad’s warnings of imminent doomsday struck a powerful chord.

Muimageammad’s preaching certainly fell on fertile ground. He was offering a bold and coherent explanation for traumatic levels of upheaval with immense passion and conviction. Not only were the epiphanies he had received powerful, so too were the warnings he issued. Those who followed his teaching would find that their land would be fruitful and burst with grain; those who did not would see their crops fail.54 Spiritual salvation would bring economic rewards. There was much to gain: believers would behold nothing less than Paradise, where gardens were fed by fresh and pure water, by ‘rivers of wine delectable to those that drink it, and rivers of clarified honey’. The faithful would be rewarded with every kind of fruit, and would receive the Lord’s forgiveness at the same time.55

Those who rejected the divine doctrines would face not just doom and disaster but damnation: anyone who waged war on his followers would suffer terribly and receive no mercy. They were to be executed or crucified, lose limbs or be exiled: the enemies of Muimageammad were the enemies of God; truly they would suffer an awful fate.56 This would include having skin burnt off by fire, to be replaced by fresh skin that would suffer the same fate, so the pain and torture would be never ending.57 Those who did not believe would ‘abide in Hell for ever, and drink scalding water that will tear their bowels to pieces’.58

This radical and impassioned message met with ferocious opposition from the conservative elite of Mecca, who were enraged by its criticism of traditional polytheistic practices and beliefs.59 Muimageammad was forced to flee to Yathrib (later renamed Medina) in 622 to escape persecution; this flight, known as the hijra, became the seminal moment in Islamic history, year zero in the Muslim calendar. As recently discovered papyri make clear, it was the point when Muimageammad’s preaching gave birth to a new religion and to a new identity.60

Central to this new identity was a strong idea about unity. Muimageammad actively sought to fuse the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single bloc. The Byzantines and Persians had long manipulated local rivalries and played leaders off against each other. Patronage and funding helped create a series of dependent clients and elites who were regulated and rewarded by payments from Rome and Ctesiphon. The intense war left this system in tatters. Protracted hostilities meant that some of the tribes were deprived of ‘the thirty pounds of gold that they normally received by way of commercial gain through trade with the Roman Empire’. Worse, their requests to have their obligations fulfilled were clumsily dealt with. ‘The emperor can barely pay his soldiers their wages,’ one agent stated, ‘much less [you] dogs.’ When another envoy told the tribesmen that the prospects of future trade were now limited, he was killed and sewn up inside a camel. It was not long before the tribes took matters into their own hands. The answer was to ‘lay waste to the Roman land’ in revenge.61

It was not for nothing then that the new faith was being preached in the local language. Behold, says one of the verses in the Qurimageān; here are the words from above – in Arabic.62 The Arabs were being presented with their own religion, one that created a new identity. This was a faith designed for the local populations, whether nomad or urban, whether members of one tribe or another, and regardless of ethnic or linguistic background. The many loan-words from Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew and Persian in the Qurimageān, the text that recorded the revelations handed down to Muimageammad, point to a polyglot milieu where emphasising similarity, rather than difference, was important.63Unity was a core tenet, and a major reason for Islam’s imminent success. ‘Let there not be two religions in Arabia’ were to be Muimageammad’s last words, according to the investigation of one respected Islamic scholar writing in the eighth century.64

Muimageammad’s prospects did not look promising when he was holed up in Yathrib, with his small group of early followers. Efforts to evangelise and add to the umma – the community of believers – were slow, and the situation was precarious as forces closed in from Mecca to attack the renegade preacher. Muimageammad and his followers turned to armed resistance, targeting caravans in a series of increasingly ambitious raids. Momentum built up quickly. Success against superior numbers and against the odds such as at the battle of Badr in 624 provided compelling evidence that Muimageammad and his men enjoyed divine protection; lucrative spoils likewise made onlookers take notice. An intense round of negotiations with leading members of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca finally resulted in an understanding being reached, since known as the treaty of al-imageudaybiya, which provided for a ten-year truce between Mecca and Yathrib, and lifted restrictions previously placed on Muimageammad’s supporters. The number of converts now began to swell.

As the number of followers grew, so did their aspirations and ambitions. Crucial in this was the designation of a clear religious centre. The faithful had previously been told to face Jerusalem when they prayed. In 628, however, following further revelation, it was apparently announced that this instruction had been a test and should now be amended: the direction or qibla to face when praying was nowhere else but Mecca.65

Not only that, but the Kaimageba, the old focal point of the polytheistic, pagan religion in Arabia, was identified as the cornerstone for prayer and pilgrimage within the city. This was revealed as having been set up by Ishmael, the son of Abraham and the putative ancestor of twelve Arab tribes. Visitors to the city were told to process around the sacred site, chanting God’s name. By doing so, they would be fulfilling the order given to Ishmael that men should be told to come from Arabia and from faraway lands, on camel and on foot, to make a pilgrimage to the place where a black stone at the heart of the monument had been brought by an angel from heaven.66 By confirming the Kaimageba as sacred, continuity was affirmed with the past, generating a powerful sense of cultural familiarity. In addition to the spiritual benefits offered by the new faith, there were obvious advantages in establishing Mecca as a religious centre par excellence – politically, economically and culturally. It defused antagonism with the Quraysh to the point that senior members of the tribe pledged their allegiance to Muimageammad – and to Islam.

Muimageammad’s genius as a leader did not end here. With barriers and opposition melting away in Arabia, expeditionary forces were dispatched to exploit opportunities opening up elsewhere that were too good to miss. The timing could not have been better either: between 628 and 632, Persia’s dramatic collapse worsened as anarchy took hold. During this short period, there were no fewer than six kings who claimed royal authority; one well-informed Arab historian writing later put the number at eight – in addition to two queens.67

Success attracted new supporters, whose numbers grew as cities, towns and villages on Persia’s southern frontier were swallowed up. These were locations that were unused to defending themselves, and folded under the first sign of pressure. Typical was the town of al-imageīra (located in what is now south-central Iraq), which capitulated immediately, agreeing to pay off attackers in return for guarantees of peace.68 Utterly demoralised, senior Persian commanders likewise counselled giving money to the advancing Arab column, ‘on condition that they would depart’.69

Securing greater resources was important, for it was not just the spiritual rewards on offer that won people over to Islamic teaching. Since the appearance of Muimageammad, one general is purported to have told his Sasanian counterpart, ‘we are no longer seeking worldly gains’; the expeditions were now about spreading the word of God.70 Clearly, evangelical zeal was vital to the success of early Islam. But so too was the innovative way that booty and finances were shared out. Willing to sanction material gain in return for loyalty and obedience, Muimageammad declared that goods seized from non-believers were to be kept by the faithful.71 This closely aligned economic and religious interests.72

Those who converted to Islam early were rewarded with a proportionately greater share of the prizes, in what was effectively a pyramid system. This was formalised in the early 630s with the creation of a dīwān, a formal office to oversee the distribution of booty. A share of 20 per cent was to be presented to the leader of the faithful, the Caliph, but the bulk was to be shared by his supporters and those who participated in successful attacks.73 Early adopters benefited most from new conquests while new believers were keen to enjoy the fruits of success. The result was a highly efficient motor to drive expansion.

As the newly formed armies continued to establish political and religious authority over the nomadic tribesmen known collectively as the ‘desert people’, or Bedouin, they made enormous inroads, bringing huge swathes of territory under their control at great speed. Although the chronology of events is difficult to re-establish with certainty, recent scholarship has convincingly shown that the expansion into Persia took place several years earlier than previously thought – at the moment Sasanian society was imploding between 628 and 632, rather than after it had done so.74 This redating is significant, for it helps contextualise the rapid gains made in Palestine, where all the cities submitted in the mid-630s – including Jerusalem, which had only recently been recovered by the Romans.75

Both Rome and Persia responded to the threat too late. In the case of the latter, a crushing Muslim victory at Qādisiyyah in 636 was a huge boost for the surging Arab armies and for Islamic self-confidence. The fact that a swathe of Persian nobles fell in the course of the battle heavily compromised future resistance, and served to put an already teetering state on the canvas.76 The Roman response was no more effective. An army under the command of the Emperor’s brother Theodore was heavily defeated in 636 at the River Yarmuk, south of the Sea of Galilee, after he had seriously underestimated the size, capability and determination of the Arab force.77

The heart of the world now gaped open. One city after another surrendered, as the attacking forces bore down on Ctesiphon itself. After a lengthy siege, the capital eventually fell, its treasury being captured by the Arabs. Persia had been broken by the spectacular rearguard action of the Romans, but it had been swallowed up by Muimageammad’s followers. Momentum was gathering fast for a disparate group of believers who had accepted their prophet’s teachings, alongside opportunists and chancers who had joined them in the hope of rewards to come. With interests aligned and success following success, the only question now was how far Islam would spread.