Expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean (8th — 10th centuries)

The traditional historical theses asserted that a dark period for Europe began with the rupture between the Western world and the Islamic world. Today, this position takes on a new significance.
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| 11/12/2019 | Last update:


Europe: two fractured worlds? Was the expansion of Islam the beginning of the stage of darkness for the continent?

The thesis of traditional historiography asserted that the spread of Islam divided Europe into two worlds with practically no contact. These historians claimed that the spread of Islam was the beginning of the dark period in Europe. A supposed dark age and impoverishment that spread during the late Middle Ages due to Arab expansion. One of the greatest exponents of this thesis was the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne.

Henry Pirenne
Portrait of the historian Henry Pirenne

Pirenne argued that the arrival of Islam in the Mediterranean had produced a fracture between the north and south of Europe. But his theory has now been superseded. The Lebanese economist Georges Corm argues that it was an “imaginary fracture,” and denies the classic idea of the division between the two worlds (Christian Europe and Muslim Europe). His theory is contained in the work “Orient-Occident, la fracture imaginaire” (published in 2002).

Expansion of Islam: Arabs and Berbers in the Mediterranean

The expansion of Islam began on the Arabian Peninsula (in the cities of Mecca and Medina), first towards the Red Sea. The promoter of Islamic expansion was the prophet and founder of Islam, Muhammad (570-632). The city of Medina was called Yathrib in pre-Islamic times. Muhammad made his famous journey in the year 622 from Mecca to Medina (displacement to be welcomed by someone).

Muhammad was born into an actually large dominant tribe in the city of Mecca, the Quraysh. One of the clans of this tribe was Banu Hashim, to which the prophet Muhammad belonged.

Muhammad did business in the caravans that were organized from Mecca to the Mediterranean ports. The story goes that Muhammad was called to go to the city of Yathrib (Medina) to mediate a conflict between farmers. One day in the year 612 Muhammad retired to a hill (Cave of Hira) and received a revelation. From that moment on, he dedicated himself to the word of God. After receiving the initial rejection in Mecca and Medina, the first community of believers, Ummah, was formed. It received other names: Jamma’a and Hizb Allah.

The Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century

A century after Muhammad’s death, Islam had spread from the Indian to the Atlantic Oceans. The Islamic religion, initially born in Arabia in 610 in a society of cameleers and peasants, became a very rapidly spreading religion. By the 10th century, the entire population of the occupied territories was Islamic.

Preliminary conditions for the spread of Islam in Mecca

Muhammad and his followers leave for Mecca

Arabia was at that time the transit area of a route linking the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean (one of the ports was Mecca). It had a lot to do with the demand for exotic products from Byzantium and Persia. It was a trade with small but highly valued things. Mecca, apart from being a station on the trade route, had long been a local and regional market and was a sanctuary, a sacred place, even before Islam.

Arabian Peninsula
Map of the Middle East and Arabia in the decades before Muhammad and the spread of Islam. Contemporary scholars place great emphasis on the conflicts between the different Empires in the area: Byzantium and Sasanian. According to this interpretation these conflicts would explain the rise of Islam, although it is important to note that classical Muslim historians also understood this context and explored it in their writings. Original map source: Peter Sluglett and Andrew Currie, Atlas of Islamic History [Routledge, 2014].

Mecca was a sacred place before Islam because it was where the Kaaba was, a stone of meteorite origin. Mecca was a market, a space for the transit of goods. It was a society formed by camel managers, a place where peace had to be ensured in order to make exchanges. It was a fundamental place for the survival of human groups in the area. This was actually important in a stateless society. The inclusion of Mecca in these routes meant that some groups of cameleers had guaranteed monopoly between Mecca and Palestine. This led to family groups that were very rich and others that were not.

Muhammad, God’s Sent One

Muhammad was born into poor groups. A great-great-grandfather of Muhammad had already tried to resolve imbalances in trade routes, so that the differences created would diminish. In the end, it was Muhammad’s message that was heard, but the rich groups threw him out, and he had to go to Medina. There Muhammad continued to preach.

In each “Sura” recited by Muhammad in Medina, guidelines of behaviour were given to the new society that resulted from this message. Muhammad lived in a very humble house. He managed to integrate other groups from outside which were added to the new community. Sometimes it was done violently. Muhammad exterminated some Jewish groups. This community gained weight to the point of threatening control of the trade route. Shortly before Muhammad died, the community re-entered Mecca.

At his death, problems emerged that had not yet been resolved while Muhammad was alive. It came a time when this community dominated the trade route, threatened and conquered the territory of the two great empires of the time, the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire of the Sasanids.

The establishment of the new Islamic State

Under the Rashidun Caliphate, the “Rightly Guided” (632-661), led by the four Caliphs successors of Muhammad and based in Medina, Damascus was conquered by the Arab-Muslim general Khalid ibn al-Walid between August and September 635 AD. From that moment on, the first Islamic State was configured, with its capital in Kufa, outside Arabia (present-day Iraq).

Soon Islam ceased to be a religion solely of the Arabs. After the Rashidun Caliphate, the Umayyad Caliphate moved the capital to Damascus. Muhammad’s death gave rise to the first problems: Muhammad was the last prophet, as God had already spoken definitively. There would be no new prophet. God speaking through Muhammad had shaped the perfect religion. And therefore, the only certainty of what had to be done was what Muhammad had written.

Who was going to replace Muhammad in leadership and guidance of the new religion? It was the Caliph who took the place of Muhammad in the direction of prayer. The first Caliph milked goats. The first dynasty of Islam was that of the Umayyads (661-750).

Map of Muslim expansion in the times of the Umayyad Caliphate
Map of Muslim expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate. Source: Wikipedia.org

The first issue arose out of this: did the leadership of prayer (religious sphere) and the leadership of the state (political sphere) have to be united in one person? Under the Umayyads, the religious function of the Caliph was united with the leadership of the State. However, God had not given instructions on how a state should be organized. Islam has never been completed, as God did not reveal everything.

Sharia is Islamic law. What were its foundations? The basic one, the Quran. Anything that the Quran did not say would be done according to the compilations, what the Prophet did or said, or stopped doing or saying. The expert in jurisprudence is the faquih and can issue a fatwa (legal pronouncement).

The administration of the new incipient State was established after the conquests and expanded very rapidly. Many Persian and Byzantine officials were transferred to the Islamic Empire. The inhabitants of the Muslim Caliphate had better fiscal treatment than those who were not, the protected ones, who were of other religions and were given a harder fiscal treatment and were forbidden to make an ostentatious cult. Very severe treatment of those who did not comply with Islam. This helped people convert to Islam.

How did the occupied societies compose themselves and what was the suitable environment that favoured the spread of Islam? What was Islam offering anew? Why did Islam stop at Poitiers? Islam found a group of societies that had favourable conditions for the adoption of the new religion. Islamic expansion was a much more complex process, combining the spread and creation of the new religion, the military dimension, the creation of new states, migration. All this coincided chronologically. Islam was a religion that evolved as it expanded. Notwithstanding this feature of an incomplete religion, it did not give rise to the creation of new faiths.

What characteristics did Islam have that made it so accommodating? Why was there a time when it no longer expanded?

Islam was highly popular due to its fiscal regime, which was much more favourable than that of other states of its time. In these first centuries, Islam spread in societies characterized by a strong political fragmentation. In ancient societies, human groups were self-organizing.

In the territories of present-day France and Spain, which were subject to the rule of the Visigoths and Merovingians, came an external power, Islam, which came across organized human groups. But beyond the political unity, the human groups that lived there were not cohesive, and it was very likely that someone from outside would want to cohere them.

These societies were receptive to the message of Islam. Mediterranean societies, once united and cohesive under the rule of the Roman Empire, could once again unite around a centralized power and Islam served precisely that purpose. Islam had the capacity to bring these fragmented political groups together. The ways that these groups cohered were very diverse: with force, voluntarily, with favourable taxation…

The political and religious dimensions could not be separated. Islam had become a political message. The Andalusian intellectual Ibn Khaldun wrote in the 14th century “Muqaddimah” where he formulated the theory on the functioning of these first Islamic states. The basis of his reasoning was the fact that political power was based on its size. He explained how, under exceptional circumstances, this relationship could result in the cohesive capacity generating a new dynasty and this was not a usual process. And that happened in the mid-eighth century, with a character who was part of the first Islamic dynasty of the Umayyads and who created the Umayyad Caliphate.

The Abbasid (in power between 750-1258) were the next dynasty after the Umayyad. They moved the seat of their caliphate to Baghdad. All the members of the Umayyad dynasty had died, except for one, who managed to escape and reach the al-Andalus. It was Abd ar-Rahman I. He took refuge in North Africa and when he passed to Al-Andalus he managed to agglutinate different groups, taking advantage of this force to the point that Abd ar-Rahman I became the first Emir of the new independent Emirate of Córdoba (years 756-929). This state lasted until the 10th century.

Abd-ar-Rahman I
Abd ar-Rahman I, first Emir of Córdoba

Ibn Khaldun’s explanation was that Arab dynasties followed cycles. They emerge, grow and then become extinct. History shows that it was not exactly like that, however it could happen in extraordinary circumstances that the masses’ strength would serve to replace a dynasty and create a new one. Any political power can be considered illegitimate, as God does not say how the State should be organized. Anything that has not been said or done by the Prophet can be considered illegitimate and an orthodox political power can be claimed (generating an orthodox message, against the illegitimate practice). This whole process was called “asabiyyah,” the strength of the group. The new dynasty had to endure the force of mercenaries, who had to be paid with taxes. It was a chain.

Arab and Berber peasant movements to the Iberian Peninsula

The migration was led by Arab groups leaving Arabia. They settled in North Africa and Al-Andalus, mixed with Berber groups. It is not known why these migratory processes took place. Migration of peasant groups that carried the different Arabic dialects. It was not a migration of isolated people, but of organized groups that carried all the technical baggage, which served them to ensure their survival. Knowledge about plants and animals. It constituted a network from which a market of species and variants of oriental origin spread.

In the second half of the 8th century a news item explains how the Emir remembers that he sent an embassy in Syria and from there he took a very curious pomegranate variety. One of the attendees to this meeting was surprised and took several samples in the place where he lived. He took them to the Emir and ordered them to be planted in the state garden. From there it spread throughout al-Andalus. In the eighth century there was an effective organization that allowed the pomegranate to spread throughout al-Andalus.

A social order very receptive to the new species was set up, as well as an effective organization to spread them. Many of these plants originated in Indochina. These plants needed to artificially create acclimatization systems for the cultivation of these crops. This knowledge made it possible to break with the rigidity of summer. The introduction of water systems allowed summer to be a time of plant growth. It guaranteed that the harvests were not concentrated in some moments of the agrarian year, but it allowed that it was extended. The successful diffusion of these techniques found a favourable social environment. Peasant groups that organized their activity according to a logic marked by survival.

In any society since the Neolithic, the organization of production always oscillated between two extremes:

The possibility of introducing new varieties during the expansion and Arab domination, made the rural population very receptive to the new Muslim rule. There was no political power capable of controlling this.

In the “Calendar of Córdoba” (year 961) there are annotations with more than 200 plants. The agricultural calendar was diversified to obtain more staggered harvests throughout the year and to avoid plagues. It was a society that created a network of markets, where news, knowledge and new species circulated. Exchange of production: migration ceased at the end of the 8th century.

Al-Andalus: States that were made and unravelled

Abd al-Rahman III
Abd al-Rahman III. The court in time of Abd al-Rahman III

Historians Pierre Bichart and Andrew Watson wrote about al-Andalus and the agrarian revolution it carried out (The Arab Agricultural Revolution and Its Diffusion, 700-1100, published in 1974). According to these authors, Islamic states functioned so to claim taxes. They were questionable states in Islamic terms. The only way they had to demand accumulations of money was through tributes. They were states created and dissolved very frequently. They could change shape very often.

When the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula took place in 711, tax systems were immediately organized. They wanted to order the territory that depended on North Africa and Damascus. In 750, the Umayyad dynasty was defeated. However, an Umayyad fled, forming a new dynasty based in Córdoba between the 8th and 11th centuries. It constituted the First Emirate (emir = leader). At the beginning of the 10th century, Abd Al-Rahman III proclaimed himself a Caliph (originally a religious title). The Umayyad state had been consolidated.

How was the new independent Umayyad State consolidated in Al-Andalus?

Umayyad consolidated themselves by organizing military campaigns and imposing their authority in a manner agreed with the indigenous populations. These powers had time and space as their enemy, as did the Roman Empire. In the 10th century, the community created by Muhammad was in a situation not initially foreseen.

In the tenth century there were three political / religious units in the Muslim space, the Caliphate:

These Caliphates ended up either dissolving, like the Umayyad Caliphate or fragmenting. They arrived in the 11th century with an even less credible situation. The division was excepted with the appearance of new dynasties. This extreme fragmentation of believers immediately echoed the discussions about the related tensions between the imam (power controlling the cult) and the mulk (political power). “The only political power there is the power that actually exists.”

After the disappearance of the Andalusian Caliphate, different political powers began to be constituted with different dynasties, which produced a continuous tension between the religious leadership of the community and the political power. Taifas (dynastic powers created by former members of the caliphal state) were created. In Valencia, the first taifa governors were civil servants in charge of organizing the route of the irrigation ditches during the Caliphate period.

They were highly mobile political powers. They needed to have strength around them as to sustain themselves. A political power that is sustained on this basis had an unstable base.

As the State began to implement the usual routines, religious questions began to arise: the experts in jurisprudence, the Faquih, wrote a letter to the Almoravid Emir demanding his intervention to put an end to the fragmentation of political powers (the Faquih called on the Almoravid to reunite political power). With the Almoravid, all this was over, as there was a certain unification of the Arab world.

The 13th century was the century of great Christian conquests in the Iberian Peninsula.

All articles of the course: Medieval History in Europe

The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman EmpireThe conversion of Constantine, the Christian EmpireAfter the Roman Empire: the Barbarian KingdomsExpansion of Islam in the Mediterranean (8th — 10th centuries)Peasants, agriculture and food before the Feudal RevolutionCharlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)The origins of the new Feudal systemChristianity, a universal institution for the feudal orderThe origin of the Feudal MonarchiesMedieval cities under feudalism and commercial expansionThe Question of Medieval Growth (11th — 13th century)The Hundred Years' War (1337 – 1453)

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