When thinking of the earliest part of the Muslim Expansion during the life of Mohammed, many factors come to mind. It could appear that the Muslims were simply more aggressive, barbarous or violent than communities already existing within the scope of their path. A theory presented in the film “The Story of Islam” proposes that the Muslim Expansion during the life of The Prophet was simply a case of ‘divine will’. Still another theory ratifies the concept of a type of ‘superior mobility’ amongst the Muslim Conquerors. 1 Though these theories certainly hold weight, we must move past the surface of and discover the roots of these theories.
For example: What would give the Muslim armies the advantage of superior mobility? Were initial followers of Islam really experiencing some form of divine inspiration when brought into the fold, or was material gain a prime motivating factor? Ultimately as we examine the Muslim Expansion in terms of the time of Mohammed, we will discover the speed and enormity of it can be attributed solely to the unique abilities of The Prophet to recruit and control various nomadic and settled tribes. It was this ability that set the tone for the pace and the massive scale of the spread of Islam during the first twenty-two years. Ultimately, the Muslim Expansion gained ground through the skills of recruitment and diplomacy possessed by Mohammed, and not the superior mobility of the Muslims or divine inspiration alone.
The expansion during the time of Mohammed proves to be a clear-cut example of tribal recruitment used to benefit said expansion. It was the diplomacy and recruitment skills of The Prophet that parlayed the movement of Islam into a force to be reckoned with. Though the theories of superior mobility and divine inspiration certainly hold some weight, they are most certainly not the single most viable explanation for this phenomenon, and are applicable primarily to later periods of expansion. The expansion of Islam took place because Mohammed possessed powerful skills of diplomacy and recruitment, and used them to his advantage. Eventually, the spread of Islam could be attributable to superior mobility and divine inspiration, but until such time, it was the mass manipulation by Mohammed that got the ball rolling.
TRIBE”A Tribe is an association of families who trace their beginnings to the same ancestors.” 2 Understanding the definition of the tribe and the importance of the tribe is paramount to understanding the lifestyle and the thinking of The Prophet. His own personal history speaks volumes about to whom he tailored his message. It speaks volumes about the psyche of a person trying to get a ‘word’ out, and the tactics that would be most effective for him. It is Mohammed’s own personal experiences and priorities that have affected both the message of Islam and the way in which that message was spread. Ultimately, it would be these experiences that would inspire and drive the movement.
The tribes of Arabia in the time immediately prior to and during Mohammed’s life were predominantly unsettled. The nomadic Bedouin tribes of Arabia possessed the superior navigation skills required to travel throughout the unforgiving topography. It was the tribes that traveled and led the caravans through the routes in and out of Mecca. Though the landscape was harsh, these tribes managed to bring something from nothing. The sparse vegetation throughout Arabia provided sustenance for their goats and camels. They drank and ate goats’ milk and cheese, and measured traveling distances between wells by the number of days it took to get there. 3 These tribes were experts on survival in the harshest of climates, and under the harshest of circumstances.
At the time of the birth of Mohammed, the two pervading empires were the Byzantine and the Persian Empires. The Arabs within their control were faced with rampant social inequalities and religious squabbles. They (the Arabs) were pagan as of this time; the Byzantine Empire was concerned with Christianity, and the Persian with Zoroastrianism. Though some theories propose that the spread of Islam following the death of The Prophet could be attributed solely to the weakened state of these two empires, 4 it cannot be true in light of the fact that this weakened state was already present at the time of the initial expansion. If the weakened state of the empires was the reason for the successful Islamic Expansion, then it would have to hold true that Mohammed would have tried to encompass these empires within the fold of Islam during his time. It does not make sense, as every available example indicates that his first order of business was forging tribal alliances within Arabia.
MOHAMMED The Prophet Mohammed was born in Mecca in the year 57 to the Banu Hashem family of the Quraysh Clan. Both his mother and his father perished while Mohammed was still a young child. The Prophet was then taken in by his uncle, Abu Talib. Ultimately, this boy led a life permeated by the caravan trade and alliances with various peripheral tribes as a result of the necessity of needing protection for the caravan routes.
He was well exposed to all of the hardships of a tribal existence and to the cultural and economic disparities between the existence and the lives of the merchant class, giving him a unique insight that would be of use to him during his later campaigns of recruitment. It is said that he experienced his first divine encounter at the age of ten, when two angels came to him, reached into his heart and washed it with a golden goblet, thereby instilling him with divine inspiration.
Eventually, though he rose to be an important merchant in Mecca, his upbringing would set the stage for his ability to reason with and understand nomadic tribes, not to mention, putting their advantageous skills to good use. His intimate knowledge would prove to be the key factor in his diplomacy and recruiting skills down the road, and lead to his ultimate successes in battle. In the tradition of Islam, it is believed that near the age of forty, Mohammed began to receive and convey the messages of Islam. 6 He was less than well received. Islam, in which the message includes giving charity to the poor and not lending money with interest, was a threat to the merchants of Mecca. Despite his failed attempts to convert members of the Meccan merchant class, specifically his own tribe, the Quraysh, he was able to successfully convert some key members of the Aws and Khazraj tribes of Yathrib.
This relationship would provide a much-needed safe haven for The Prophet and his followers in the near future. Mohammed’s proclamations of monotheism, coupled with the ideas previously mentioned, did not sit well with the Meccans. They themselves were pagan, and ultimately out to make some money. The newly developing doctrines of Islam did not coincide with their current lifestyles.
It was an outright threat to the socio-economic and religious structures of the Meccan community and the leaders would not have it. As Mohammed began to gather more and more followers, the community at large became more and more hostile toward The Prophet and those who chose to subscribe to his school of thought. It was no time at all before the new Muslims and Mohammed himself were seeking refuge from the persecution they were forced to endure, and a destination for exile. This move from Mecca to Medina came to be known as the Hijra. The Muslim Calendar begins its first year at this time.
The tribes in Medina that Mohammed had cultivated relationships with heard about the troubles of The Prophet, and invited him to serve as an arbitrator for local disputes. This invitation alone should be seen as a testament to Mohammed’s diplomacy skills. It would be reasonable to assume that his superior level of communication and abilities to persuade others were most likely enormous factors in his obtaining this ‘job offer’.