The Arab Empire Expansion and the factors that led to the expansion of Islamic Civilization

expansion of Islamic Civilization


At the time of Muhammad’s demise, Islam was majorly a local religion. It was hardly recognized outside Arabia, but after 100 years since the death of Muhammad, it became a unifying factor that held together with a huge empire that stretched far beyond the Atlantic Ocean, the Himalayas in the east, and the Pyrenees in the west. It has since grown as one of the biggest unifying factors in mankind’s history. As opposed to Christianity which was largely spread by missionaries, Islam was largely spread by conquering armies. This is largely attributed to the fact that Arabs invaded areas considered weak or with less population. Islam spread across the Middle East and North Africa filling gaps spared by the decadence and anarchy of Byzantine rule. During the time when the Arabs conquered the Middle East in the 7th Century, Byzantium was weak after their battles with the Persians and Avars and further by the plague leaving a shell of its former self.

Since the emergence of Arabia in the 7th century, Islam as a religion has spread fast, by rapid military conquest as well as conversion, across North Africa and the Middle East. Islam had initially spread into some parts of Northern Africa by the mid-7th century, just a few decades after Prophet Muhammad had relocated from Mecca to Medina just close to the Arabian Peninsula with his followers. The conquest of Spain by the Arabs as well as the spread of Arab forces as far as the Indus River led to an empire that covered three continents, just close to ten decades after the death of the prophet. Ten centuries later, the region under Islamic political and religious control stretched from the south of the Philippines, across Asia, through the Middle East via Turkey, and into areas in central Europe. This paper explores the expansion of the Arab Empire as well as the factors that led to Islamic Civilization.

Factors to the expansion of Islamic Civilization

There were a number of factors that led to the expansion of Islamic Civilization including Spiritual prowess, intellectual freedom, political freedom, openness, and the ability to transform the ideals of the Qur’an to daily conduct.

Spiritual Prowess.

Huge freedom was given to persons who embraced Islam to discover life and the world and to spread Islam. As a result, the early Muslims understood the significance of Ijtihad or simply exercising human intellect which is embraced by Islam. They began to explore different areas of Knowledge which later formed the foundation of the growth of Islamic civilization, this is also supported by Prophet Muhammad’s urge to Muslims to seek knowledge.

Intellectual freedom

Liberating the human intellect from superstitions as well as the reality of Ijtihad and creativity were some of the reasons for the rise of Islamic Civilization. There was an affirmation to educate the people to critically and creatively think. There was also a conducive research environment with inspiration, particularly looking into the assertion of a revelation within the natural phenomenon and going back to the revelation in case of hindrances in their bid to understand the physical world better. The inauguration of Bait al-Hikmah for research purposes was a clear example of the proof of intellectual freedom within the early instances of Islamic Civilization.

Political freedom

Despotism, Injustice as well as tyranny were and still remain the major risks to states’ downfall. Early Muslims, seemed to have understood this early especially with regard to oppression between the ruler and subjects and the tawhid and Qur’an founded Islamic civilization. Early Muslims strived to guarantee equality and a sense of justice among the people whom they ruled. Open consultations were also considered together with the freedoms of speech and expression as backed up by the Shariah law was largely treasured. There was also some sense of reciprocity between the rulers and the people with a view of promoting mutual fruitful relationships. Furthermore, the Muslim’s attitude has also been a huge factor in the growth and development of Islamic civilization.

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This implies the ability to learn based on experiences, irrespective of the race, and ethnicities of persons. Muslim Civilization initially was a collaboration between Muslims of different races and regions. They did not heavily rely on military strength, in dominating almost half the world. It was more to do with their humanity and righteousness. In addition, Muslims openly intermarried with local populations hence becoming part of them. 

Ability to transform the ideals of the Qur’an to daily conduct

Imam al-Ghzali, defines character as “an established state from which actions proceed easily without any need for reflection or deliberation”. The biggest openness of the Quran is that it’s not only a holy book but rather a book of ethics and impeccable moral values. It is to date a reference point for morality and ethical values. Early Muslims had a strict adherence to the teachings of the Quran, the transformed the theoretical message of the holy teachings into practical teachings, resonating with the lives of people being preached to. It also showed their honesty, sincerity, love, perseverance, and patience of knowledge for the sake of Allah.

Arab Expansion in the Middle East

After the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslims were prohibited from attacking other Muslims. They then resorted to attacking people perceived as infidels to the north in Persia and Byzantium who had both been deteriorated by infighting. Persia was then controlled by Zoroastrian Sassanids while Byzantines were Christians. After the death of the prophet, his followers continued to spread Islam. Under their command, the Arab armies then began spreading the new faith as well as leadership from the Arabian Peninsula to the Eastern reaches of Iran through the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They conquered Egypt, Syria, and Palestine from the Byzantine empire, while Iran and Iraq which was then the base of the Sasanian Empire yielded to their forces.

In these new territories, Islam promoted the growth of political, religious, and cultural commonwealth as well as the establishment of a global Empire. Between 634-644, when the Arabs were under Caliph, the Arabs witnessed great success. By 644 when his tenure came to an end, the entire Middle East was under the control of the Arabs. Caliph often referred to himself as the commander of the faithful, rising to become the de facto king over the Bedouins. He managed to Unite Muslims as well as non-Muslims to further conquer more areas in the Middle East. Furthermore, most of the warriors helping his course were anxious to seize land and loot property as opposed to only the religious motivation.

Arabs Conquer Persia

Just a year after Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, Arabia was already secure to permit Abu Bakr and the first Caliph to initiate a campaign against the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires. Abu Bakr conquered the Byzantine army in 635 at Damascus before beginning his conquest of Iran. It is alleged that Muhammad was diplomatic and even sent a letter from Mecca to the King of Sassanid as well as Khosrow Parviz openly appealing to them to embrace Islam.

Debilitated by years of contests with the Byzantines and the Romans, the Sassanids in Iraq and Iran easily succumbed to the Arabs between 637 and 642 A.D. The Arabs in 632 overpowered the Persians in the battle of Qadisiyyah in the outskirts of Baghdad and took control of the Sassanid Ctesiphon stronghold, an Island between Euphrates and Tigres hence also controlling Mesopotamia. The Arabs further defeated the Sassanid army at Nahavand between 641 and 642. This exposed Iran to invaders as they had become weaker.

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Persia was so wealthy and known to be home to luxury during the period. The Arabs traded Gold with Silver, which was their indigenous currency. It is told that some Arab soldier kidnapped a rich Persian man’s daughter and demanded 1,000 dirhams as ransom. When asked why he didn’t demand more, he replied he had never heard of a number greater than 1,000. This shows that perhaps the Arabs were not aware then of the value of their currency.

The Sassanids were conquered easily after they had been weakened by years of fighting with the Byzantines as well as the internal conflicts coupled with massive destruction of Agriculture by floods. Several Sassanid army men who were also Arabs switched allegiance. This conquest was a success because of the material and social bankruptcy of the Sassanid’s strategy. The indigenous people had very little to lose by collaborating with the Arabs. Furthermore, Islam offered better religious lenience to people who embraced Islamic rule without confrontation. This form of Islam which was perceived as advantageous rapidly spread among Urban populations with challenges among the dihgans and peasantry. Majority of people in Iran resisted Islam until the 9th century.

Arrival of Islam in Central Asia

Between 644 and 650, Muslims established Islam rule in Afghanistan, Iran, and some areas of Pakistan. Arabs first conquered Mawarannahr, a Sogdian province in Iran present-day Uzbekistan in the mid-17th century. The people of Central Asia and the Sogdians were not able to defend themselves against the Asians due to internal divisions as well as a formidable indigenous leadership.

The Arabs were under the leadership of Qutaybah a brilliant general and were mostly motivated by a newfound will to spread their new faith. This made it easy to diminish the Mawarannahr population. The Arab armies quickly invaded Iran but were hampered in present-day Uzbekistan by Transoxiana Turks in 642 when an impasse ensured. The Arabian armies finally managed to go around it in 700 A.D. taking control of Central Asia beginning with the conquer of Bukhara in 709, Samarkand in 712, and Kashgar two years later.

The Arab Invaders introduced Islam to Central Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries assisted by Sufi teachers, who traveled across steppes, deserts, and mountains. The indigenous cultures, which had already been displaced by Persian impact before the arrival of the Arabs, were further displaced in the following centuries. Nonetheless, Central Asia was established firmly as an Islamic region by the Arab victory of Chinese armies during the battle at Talas River in 750.

Arab Expansion in Africa

Within Sub-Saharan Africa along the Indian Ocean, Islam was peacefully spread by Merchants on ships as well as missionaries. In West Africa and the Sahara, Islam was brought by Tuareg caravans that carried ivory, salt, sugar, gold, slaves, leather, cloth, and brassware to areas like Gao, Kumbi, and Timbuktu. In Mali, the locals traded with Arabs and Berbers for years before adopting Islam in the 11th century. Muslim merchants were established along the East African coast by the 13th century. 

Given that the Sahara economy was mainly founded on Camel caravans which transported goods to the Mediterranean, Islam easily spread into sub-Sahara Africa. They were hampered in their expansion strategies by the tsetse flies which killed a number of camels belonging to the Islamic conquerors and missionaries. Arab travelers and traders who had turned African clerics began to spread Islam between the 8th and 9th centuries along the East African coast, to the western and central Sudan, inspiring the growth of urban communities. Given its tactical, reasonable, and practical approach to various cultural dimensions, it necessitates the consideration of Islam spread in Africa through multiple histories rather than as a joint movement.

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The expansion of Islam across Africa was not uniform. It first began with Sudanese merchant’s converts followed by Ghana and Mali in the 11th and 13th centuries respectively.  The Almoravid intervention which was spearheaded by the Berber nomads, who were firm observers of Islamic law, ignited the momentum of Islam converts in Ghana. The presence of Muslim merchants led to the construction of Mosques in Ghana. King Mansa Musa of Mali brought back the architect al-Sahili from a pilgrimage to Mecca and is credited with the Sudano-Sahelian building style. Mansa Suleyman further encouraged the construction of Mosques as well as Islamic learning.

Timbuktu which started as Tuareg settlement was also integrated to the Mali empire, later reclaimed and incorporated to the Songhai Empire. The majority of Islam scholars in Timbuktu in the 16th century had Sudanese lineages.  On the East African coast, Arabic vocabulary was integrated with Bantu languages to form the Swahili language. Conversions in the Sub-Saharan Africa was motivated by the fear of being sold as slaves, then the biggest trade between Mediterranean and Lake Chad.

Spread of Islam to Spain

The first account of Arabs in Spain dates back to 710. Despite the fact that the conquerors comprised of Arabs who hailed originally from The Middle East as well as the North African Berbers, the Spanish people grouped them together under the name Moors. The Arabs referred to Spain as Al-Andalus. Over 7,000 Moorish troops under the guidance of a Berber slave named Tariq landed in Spain emanating from Northern Africa. They conquered the already divided Christian Visigoths who resided in Spain and overcame the last remaining Visagoth King. The Arab Soldiers joined the Moors from the Umayyad dynasty based in Syria. They then progressed further North conquering Peninsula until they were rebelled in Southern France 2 decades later.

In 711 A.D. an army comprising of Berbers and Arabs brought together under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate arrived on the Iberian Peninsula. Through a combination of warfare and diplomacy, they conquered Peninsula except for Asturias and Galicia and brought it under Islamic control. The newly captured territories were governed by a provincial government created and named Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and headquartered in Cordoba.


The Arab invasions beginning in the 7th century were among the least destructive invasions historically. The Arab conquest was strategic, precise and permanent. Close to all territories conquered in the early centuries remain under Islam to date, unlike the Mongol, Roman, or Persian Empires. In all the places where Arabs conquered, they brought with them Arab culture. The cultures of the assimilated persons within conquered territories including regions controlled by Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were greatly influenced by the culture of Arab Invaders. A clear example is a Swahili language which emanated as a result of a mix of Bantu and Arabian words.

The Arabic language and culture were spread alongside Islam. The conquered territories were subdued politically but over time, their customs, culture, and administrative practices, as well as the perception of the world, changed their conquerors. Initially, it was common for persons who were not Arabs to convert to Islam or become an Arab through establishing a relationship with any Arab tribe. As the years progressed becoming an Arab and converting to Islam have become distinct processes.  It is also clear that Islam is fundamentally designed to resonate with the interests of people by advocating simple lifestyles with no judgment or condemnation of each other. However, there exists one huge threat to Islam Civilization in the form of a radical form of Islam associated with acts of terrorism or killings of non-believers, supposedly to scare of non-converts into converting to Islam. 

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