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Contextualization of the development of Islam

Why did Islam emerge and spread when and where it did? Why was it so rapid? 

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Here is a passage from the Scottish philosopher, writer, even a little bit of mathematics, historian Thomas Carlyle. And, he wrote this On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History. And this is in reference to his view on Mohammed and the spread of Islam. A poor shepherd people, he's referring to the Arabs before Mohammed, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe; see the unnoticed becomes the world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that. He's speaking of within 100 years of Mohammed's death, the Muslim empire has spread from what would eventually be Southern Spain, all the was to Northern India. These Arabs, the man Mahomet, and that one century, is it not as if a spark had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable sand; but lo, the sand proves explosive powder, blazes heaven high from Delhi to Grenada. I said, the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame. And Thomas Carlyle is known as one of the proponents of the of Great Man view of history, that history is nothing but the story of a series of great men, who changed the direction in which humanity travels. So, what we're gonna do in this video is think about whether it really is all about a great man, or were there other things that were in the context of the time and space in which these things occur. This is what the world looked like in the year 600. Mohammed starts spreading his revelations in 610, and so you can see on this map, there's two major powers: the Byzantine, which is the Eastern Roman Empire, the vestiges of the Roman Empire, and you also have the Sassanid Persian Empire. The Byzantines are a Christian empire, and the Sassanids are Zoroastrian, and Mohammed is from the Quraysh tribe, which is in charge of Mecca, which is considered a pilgrimage site for the various tribes of Arabia. But, you can see that Arabia is fragmented, and this doesn't even do justice to how fragmented it was. But, if you fast forward 200 years, you see a major change, and in fact, you wouldn't have to go all the way to 800, even by the early eighth century, you see that Islam has spread from the Iberian peninsula all the way to the Indus, and most of this, as mentioned, happens within 100 years after Mohammed's death. But, let's ask our central question: why did Islam emerge so rapidly where and when it did? And there's no clear right or wrong answer here, it's all going to be conjecture, but that's what's fun about history, we can think about what we think we know, and then we can debate, and think about are there some patterns here that we see over and over in history? Well, what's the context? So, we know for a fact that Arabia was fragmented, that the law of the land in Arabia was tribal, and tribal justice, and this is the world that Mohammed grew up in. The various tribes often worshiping different gods. We also know at this time that Mohammed had exposure to other religions, some of which had penetrated the various tribes of Arabia. Most notably, you have Christianity, and Mohammed's wife's cousin was, in fact, a Christian. And you also have Judaism. These two clearly being related religions, Christianity coming out of a Jewish tradition. We also know that the two great empires here, the Byzantines and Persian empires are in constant conflict, and in fact, the Arabs and many in the Middle East are the pawns in that conflict. And so, you have the Byzantines versus the Persians, with the possibility of those living in their lands might not have been happy with either. There's also the sense that we're at the very beginning of a long decline for the Byzantine Empire. So, one thesis could be that Mohammed was able to bring many of the ideas of Christianity and Judaism, but these ideas helped to unify a fragmented Arab people. And not only did it unify them, but it gave them the energy that you could have through religious zeal, and that energy is what allowed them not only to unify in Arabia, and they're able to unify most of Arabia by the time of Mohammed's death. But, within 100 years of his death, they're able to take over the entire Sassanid Empire and make major inroads into the Byzantine Empire. And so, one argument might be, and I encourage you to argue with me, that they were unified, they had this missionary zeal, which perhaps was only seen in Christianity before Islam, and they were able to take advantage of conflict and discontent between the Byzantines and Persians in order to spread. Now, another question is do we see any patterns here? Are there any other examples in history of this happening? Well, the most comparable religion is Christianity, which is, today, larger than Islam, but Christianity, you have a long period between Jesus, who is the central figure of Christianity, who is the underlying spiritual figure, and when Christianity really spreads, and really becomes and empire, and that really starts with Constantine, roughly 300 years after the time of Jesus. What's interesting about the example in this video, the example of Islam, in terms of the religion, Mohammed plays a little bit of both of these roles. He is a spiritual figure, he has revelations, but he is also the founder of an empire, he also governs, he is also a military and political figure. And so, perhaps for the first time in history on this scale, you have the combination of religious zeal, of spiritual belief, of faith, combined with governance, combined with the desire to create an empire. In terms of empire, the only thing that might be comparable in terms of the vastness and the speed in which it happens, is the Mongol empire, the Mongols are an example of people who were fragmented initially, tribal, unified by Genghis Khan, and through that unification were able to spread incredibly rapidly, and take on some long historic and possibly declining empires. So, I'll leave you there, it's a fascinating question that historians debate to this day. Islam started awfully fast, and spread awfully fast. Why did this happen? Was it some unique characteristics of Mohammed? Was it some unique characteristics of the religion? Or, as Thomas Carlyle alludes to, maybe this whole region was just waiting for something like this, something to unify the tribes of Arabia and take on the decaying Byzantine and Sassanid empires.