[Originally posted Dec. 24, 2012]
I have often idly wondered what propelled the Arab expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries but, until recently, never given it any serious thought. In my book on expansion cycles I shied away from including the Arab expansion. The reason for this is that it seemed somewhat different from other expansion cycles I was studying and the religious element I found rather distracting.
Recently, however, I have become more sensitive to the role religion plays in building consensus and group identity (especially after reading D.S. Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral). I therefore decided to take a closer look at Arab expansion.
Many devout Muslims will assume that Arab or early Muslim expansion simply reflects the power of the message presented by Mohammad and many scholars will assume something similar. To others this seems unsatisfactory. To begin with, this reasoning easily becomes circular thus: the Muslims expanded because of Mohammad’s powerful message and we know how powerful his message was because it lead to Muslim expansion. There is no getting around it that any claim that it was Mohammad’s powerful message that started the expansion must be supported by reference to the message itself, why it was so powerful and how it caused the Muslims to start expanding. Additionally, the main early expansion only lasted a little more than a century and it seems difficult to explain why the religion lost its driving force so quickly, if indeed the expansion was simply propelled by religious fervour.
Theologically speaking, Islam is not much different from some Judeo-Christian sects that were actually prominent in the Arab-speaking world at the time of Mohammad such as the Ebionites who believed Jesus to have been a human prophet rather than the Son of God. It has even been suggested that Islam originated as such a sect. The Quran has more to say about Jesus than Mohammad and it seems possible that Mohammad saw himself as a kind of Christian and had no intention of replacing Jesus as the principal prophet to the faithful. After Mohammad’s death in 632 his successors, Abu Bakr and the early caliphs, would have found it in their interest to draw a sharp line between the Muslims and the Christians, Jews and others and thus create a well-defined identity for their people. To do this they simply had to promote Mohammad over Jesus as the principal prophet and collect his revelations into a new holy book, the Quran, to replace biblical scriptures.
The message of Islam is not all that revolutionary and it is hard to see any religious elements that were so strikingly different that they can explain early Islamic expansionism. The concept of jihad seems to have been developed (even reluctantly by Mohammad) after the expansion had started and as a response to the needs of the expansion rather than being its original driving force. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it wasn’t the importance of Mohammad’s message the made the Muslims great. It may actually have been the other way around.
Other explanations for Muslim expansion refer to the weakened state of the Arab’s principal opponents, the Byzantines and the Persians who had been fiercely fighting each other. This seems a weak explanation since empires have been fighting each other for millennia and if a temporary weakness caused by such wars is enough to explain such a massive expansion as the Arab one we would expect many more such episodes. Some scholars also refer to Arab nomadism that supposedly made them more mobile, warlike and formidable opponents. However, only a part of the Arabs were nomads, most probably lived as farmers in the oases of Arabia, many even in cities such as Mecca and Medina. For the nomadic lifestyle to have any explanatory power it would also have had to undergo some significant change or increase at the time the expansion started — how else can it explain the sudden expansion starting precisely in the first half of the 7th century rather than at some other time.
Arab expansion certainly doesn’t seem to conform exactly to the expansion cycle model as I had developed it — and yet there are striking similarities. Most expansion cycles of note start in what I call competitive systems and such expansions I call system expansions (as somewhat different from colonizing expansions and empire expansions, although the driving mechanism is similar). It seems quite likely that the Arabs of the western plateau of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz, formed a competitive system with the cities of Mecca and Medina as two of the principal competitors. The polities of such systems tend to maximize their military capacity, eventually (if reluctantly) by including many or most of the common population in the business of war. In this way the system as a whole becomes very belligerent but also develops democratic and egalitarian tendencies since the military power of each polity depended on the armed commoners rather than a small warrior elite. These commoners, through their military power, also acquired political power. This seems to fit quite well with early Islam, which showed both militaristic and egalitarian tendencies.
When a competitive system adopts popular warfare, i.e. starts including the commoners in their army and their political processes, this triggers expansion. With their newfound political power, the commoners demand land or other resources that allow them to live decently, get married, have children and support their families. To begin with, such demands are often met at home, e.g. by dividing all available land between commoners – but this is only a temporary solution. Since many more commoners are now in a position to raise families the result is rapid population growth, calling for still more land. Soon the demand for land and resources can only be met by expansion. Such an expansion is made possible by the military power that has evolved within the system with the inclusion of the commoners in warfare and which gives the polities of the system a decisive edge against polities outside the system.
Adopting popular warfare is not an easy decision since this also causes the ruling elite to lose much of its power. Therefore, the first polity to take the plunge is usually a polity that is under extreme stress and sees no other way out. However, once popular warfare has been adopted the power of this pioneer polity increases dramatically. This often leads to what I have termed Napoleon syndrome, the classic example of which is the binge of conquests France embarked upon within the European system after the French Revolution under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte. This forces other polities in the system to also adopt popular warfare and to catch up as quickly as they can or else be eliminated. I used to think that there were two possible outcomes of a Napoleon syndrome. Either the pioneer polity is stopped from conquering the whole system; all its polities develop popular warfare and then start to expand outside the system. Else, the pioneer polity succeeds in conquering the system, subdues all its opponents and effectively turns itself into a new elite in an empire that covers the whole system. In the latter case the expansion cycle would be curtailed since only the pioneer polity managed to adopt popular warfare and its people became a privileged minority in the new empire.
My current hypothesis is that there is a third possibility exemplified by the Arab expansion. I assume that Medina was the pioneer polity within the Arab system and I suggest that the reason why things took a different turn here is the complexity of the various and conflicting identities among the Arabs. Not only did they belong to a city or a region but also to a tribe (and a clan within a tribe). Several such tribes often lived mixed together. There were also a variety of different religious congregations. Some were still pagan but many practiced various forms of Judaism or Christianity. Each person or household could therefore hold three different and sometimes conflicting identities: regional, tribal and religious. My guess is that as Medina developed popular warfare and started to get the better of its neighbours, it needed a new identity to bring its people together and separate them from their enemies. Regional allegiances were not strong enough to serve this purpose in the face of conflicting tribal and religious ones. The solution was to flock around a new prophet who could give them identity and purpose and bring the people together in a common cause and that is why they called upon Mohammad to lead them in 622 AD (the Hijra). And that is why this event, Mohammad’s ’emigration’ from Mecca, is the true beginning of Islam (as marked by their calendar), strange as it may seem to an outsider.
However, this also meant that the pioneer polity of Medina took on a religious identity rather than a regional or tribal one. It also meant that any Arab who accepted the message of Mohammad could join in and this, I suggest, was the crucial difference. The religious pioneering polity of Medina, instead of simply subduing its neighbours and starting a new hegemony, opened its arms to them and asked them to join. Quite soon most of the Arabs had formed an alliance bent on expansion with explosive results. Because this form of expansion cycle united the whole system in a single egalitarian polity the resulting expansion was unusually powerful and dramatic, signifying one of the most momentous episodes in human history. This fourth variant of the expansion cycle is therefore the result of a third possible outcome of a Napoleon Syndrome; where the system is indeed unified but not as a new hegemony but rather as an egalitarian super-polity bent on external expansion. It may very well be the only one of its kind in world history since it seems to rely on the rather unusual configuration of the Arab competitive system.
I am by no means an expert in early Islam or Arab history and I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of these matters is superficial. The hypothesis presented here is simply my guess as to how the Arab expansion may have started – a guess that is based on the expansion cycle model but also adds a new variant to it. I would be delighted if someone with a deeper understanding of 7th century Arabia undertook a more detailed investigation based on this hypothesis – but I fear it is too much to ask.