Spread of Islam

James Levi Barton

The phenomenal success of Mohammed as the founder of a new religion was due not wholly to his own ability, enthusiasm and courage, but was, in a large measure, owing to the surroundings into which he was born and the opportunities that those surroundings afforded. It is an example, by no means unique in history, of the power of environment in making a man and in the development and success of his mission.

At the birth of Mohammed, in the year 570 A.D., the civilized part of Western Asia was divided between two empires, both of them of enormous strength, namely, the Persian empire and the so-called Roman empire of Constantinople. They were rivals of each other and were in constant conflict. Arabia was in part between them and was sometimes subject to one and sometimes to the other, so far as the independent spirit of the Arab could he subject to any nation. The Roman Empire was by name and profession Christian, but as distance increased from the center, the character of the Christianity professed by its subjects was corrupted by conflicting heresies so that the essential character of the teachings of Jesus Christ was distorted almost beyond recognition. There was constant revolt against the established religion and control from Constantinople, and to this was added the unrest which the inhabitants of Arabia manifested under Roman political power. It is manifest that neither the religious nor the political power of Constantinople held firm band on the thought and life of the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula. Their natural political attitude was that of rebellion, and their religious attitude that of heresy.

On the other hand, the religion of Persia had developed into a kind of dualism, represented by the spirit of light, Ormuzd, and the spirit of evil, Ahriman. The Sun was venerated as the symbol of the power of light, accompanied by a superstitious worship of fire and of the heavenly bodies; while the spirit of evil or darkness became almost personified as the force to be resisted.

The Arab, being subject first to one and then to the other of these powerful neighbors, caught some fragments of the religion represented by each. Zoroastrianism and Christianity had their followers in Arabia, while there were many colonies of Jews who had settled there before the time of Christ and who, in a general way, represented the Jewish faith; but the dominant creed of the inhabitants of Arabia was a crude polytheism in which the Arabs were gradually losing faith1. They were coming to believe in one Supreme Deity, but subordinate to Him as a host of inferior divine personages who were looked upon as intercessors.

This barren development of early Semitic religion had its center in the temple in the sacred city of Mecca. The holy black stone, an aerolite from heaven, said by tradition to be a relic of an earlier temple built by Abraham and Ishmael, had sacred connections with Paradise. It was supposed to have been given to Adam and to have been an object of veneration to the day of Mohammed. In the city of Mecca was also the holy spring, Zem Zem, which, according to tradition, broke forth to save Hagar and Ishmael from perishing of thirst, and to this the devout Arab came to worship the God of Abraham.

Just before the rise of Mohammed there had developed a dissatisfaction with the national religion among the more reflective and discerning Of the inhabitants of Mecca and the surrounding areas. One of the most ancient biographies of Mohammed gives an account of four men who, without revelation, perceived the error of idolatry. It is reported that these four men refused to bow the knee before the image of the Kaaba, and went out in search of the purer faith of Abraham. Tradition reports that two of these four became Christians; the third embraced Islam, but later went to Abyssinia and there became converted to Christianity; the fourth renounced and condemned all the gross superstitions of his countrymen, but remained in a sceptical condition of mind to the time of his death.

In his Christianity and Islam2 W.R.W. Stephens sums up the situation in the following words:

"Arabia was on the edge of two great rival empires, both weakened by protracted and exhausting contests. The crisis of the struggle, indeed was contemporaneous with the preaching of Mahomet. Heraclius the Roman Emperor overthrew the Persian power in 629. The Roman Empire was itself weakened in the border provinces by this exertion; the Persian Empire never recovered. The Arab, had been partially subject to one other power, but never absorbed politically or religiously by either.

Gross superstition and licentiousness prevailed, but a spirit of discontent and scepticism was at work. There was no national unity. Each tribe was a separate, independent atom.

The opportunity then was favorable for the action of sonic master mind which should first of all weld the jarring elements of life in Arabia itself into a compact body; then proceed to annex to it the great neighboring Empire of Persia, already prostrate by its rival; and finally to subdue the weakened fringes of that very rival, the Roman Empire. This was the work of Mahomet."

Until after the flight to Mecca [sic; the author certainly meant to write "Medina" (web editor)], Mohammed endeavored to propagate his new religion by persuasion rather than by force. His was a quiet, persistent search for favorable soil in which to sow the seed. After only eight years at Medina, when success had crowned his armed campaigns, the prophet is reported to have addressed a manifesto to the world inviting all mankind to submit to Islam. Ambassadors were sent to present these messages in person. Tradition declares that this message was as follows, quoting from the one said to have been sent to Emperor Heraclius:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Mohammed, who is the servant of God and his apostle to Herclius the Emperor of Rome. Peace be on whoever has gone on the straight road. After this I say, verily I call you to Islam. Embrace Islam and God will reward you two-fold. If you turn away from the offer of Islam, then on you be the sins of your people. O people of the Book, come towards a creed that is fit both for us and for you. It is this - worship none but God and not to associate anything with God, and not to call others God. Therefore, O ye people of the Book, if ye refuse, beware. We are Muslims and our religion is Islam."

This would indicate that Mohammed saw a vision of world conquest for his new religion, and so began by asking certain sovereigns to accept him as a prophet Of God, and inviting all the world to the same privilege. From this time onward, the sword played a large part in the dissemination of Islam.

While Mohammed set out to found a new religion, he also established a new political order, different from anything that then was or that had previously existed. Starting with the idea that he wished only to convert his brethren to belief in one God, he overthrew the government of both Medina and Mecca, and, for the tribal rule by which the leading families shared in the conduct of public affairs, he substituted a theocratic monarchy centering in himself - the representative of God on earth.

Missionaries with the sword multiplied their activities, as success crowned their endeavors, to win neighboring tribes. Biographers of saints report that vast numbers were converted by the power of preaching the Gospel of Mohammed, although it is difficult not to believe that, in many instances at least, if reports are true, an army was waiting to strike in case the preacher's eloquence and persuasiveness failed to bring about the desired results. It is impossible to distinguish, in the narrative of the many conquests of Islam during the first century after the death of Mohammed, how much was due to religious zeal and how much to greed and political ambition.

Other methods have been employed by Mohammedans for propagating their faith, such as the purchase or forcible seizure of non-Moslem children in times of plague, famine, war and massacre, or even in times of no special disturbance, and rearing them in the Mohammedan faith. The Janissaries at Constantinople are a case in point. The children of Christians were taken regularly to replenish the ranks of this special body-guard of successive Sultans of Turkey. Another method employed to increase the number of Moslems was the plurality of wives and the use of captive women of non-Moslem races as concubines. These two methods of propagation were conspicuously employed, and even to the present time are in use by the Turks.

It must be borne in mind that there is no distinctive Moslem race or people. While Mohammed was an Arab, as were the early converts, no attempt was instituted to make Islam an ethnic religion. Jews were among the early converts, and as conquests increased, other races were added and intermarriage followed, since Islam claimed to recognize no race or class. To the present time, willing or enforced conversions from among Christian and other people have produced a mixture that bears the marks of a great variety of contributing races. Probably today the Arabs present the purest Moslem race, while Mohammedans in China are mostly Chinese.

Before the death of Mohammed the greater part of Arabia had submitted and produced a political unity that had never before been experienced in the Peninsula, creating from a great number of disconnected and often hostile tribes the semblance of a nation under one leader. With astonishing speed a political organism emerged, subordinating the clan system to the larger idea of religious unity. It is no wonder, in the face of such success, that Mohammed began to see visions of world conquest, or that his followers caught the idea and began to act upon it.

One naturally asks the question whether the real of Mohammed and his immediate successors was due more to religious enthusiasm, or to love of conquest? This question will probably never be satisfactorily answered, since undoubtedly motives were hopelessly mixed. Large numbers of those who comprised the victorious armies of the faithful had yielded only under external pressure, succumbing in the hope of worldly gain. Pride in new-found strength, with assurance of booty, accompanied by a hitherto unexperienced conception of a common religion, spurred on the armies and their leaders to renewed activities and deeds of daring which led to rapid conquest.

It is an interesting fact that Mohammedanism extended itself in the first century East and West along the belt of greatest heat. There seems to have been little effort to propagate the new religion in regions north or south of 30 degrees of latitude. Unlike all other religions, it may be called the religion of the tropics, although there is nothing in its teachings or practice that would seem to exclude it from temperate and even from frigid zones. It has in European Turkey, in much of Asiatic Turkey, and in Russia and Turkestan, held its own considerably north of the limit named, as it has also done in China, but still the fact remains that the great mass of Mohammedans are found today, and have always been found, in tropical countries. It should be noted in passing that the people within the region named for the last five centuries have contributed practically nothing to the development and social, intellectual or commercial advancement of the human race. Mr. Alleyne Ireland says of them:

"The people of this belt ham added nothing whatever to what we understand by human advancement. Those natives of the tropics and subtropics who have not been under direct European influence have not during that time (five centuries) made a single contribution of the first importance to art, literature, science, manufacture, or invention; they have not produced an engineer or a chemist or a biologist or a historian or a painter or a musician of the first rank"3.

These facts must be taken into consideration in all plans and efforts made for the elevation and Christianization of this people; this is a large part of the Moslem problem and may suggest at least one of the reasons why previous endeavors in this direction have been so meagre of tangible results. Islam was born under a tropical sky and seems to shrink from the rigor of colder zone.

It was manifestly the thought of Abu Bekr, the successor of Mohammed, that a campaign of conquest was intended by his chief and that the responsibility of carrying out that intention rested upon him. An army was dispatched to Syria, the first of a series of remarkable campaigns in which, under his successors, Syria, Persia, and North Africa were conquered. The ancient kingdom of Persia was overrun and some of the fairest provinces of the Roman Empire were seized.

Dr. Zwemer notes three periods in the spread of Islam, the first, from the death of Mohammed (632 A.D.) to 800 A.D.; the second, covering the Ottoman and Mongol period, from 1280 to 1480 A.D., and the third from 1780 to the present time. These may be called the Apostolic period of rapid expansion, the Medieval period of centralization, and the Modern period of mystical revival and of national decline.

During the first, or Apostolic period, the disciples with irresistible zeal carried their faith and sway throughout Arabia, across Syria, Egypt, Tunis, Tripoli, Algeria, Morocco, and into Spain. At the same time Persia was brought under the sway of the prophet, while preachers of Islam were making converts in Canton and Western China and in parts of India. It is impossible here to explain at length or to attempt a description m detail of the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of the armies of Islam, as they swept with fanatical energy and zeal, North, East and West, conquering everything that blocked their way and creating within a century after the death of the prophet an empire greater in extent than that of Rome at the height of its power.

It would be an interesting study to search for the secret of the power of this new religion by which it was able to accomplish such marvelous results. Many explanations are given, such as, the corrupt divided state of Christianity, depriving it of power of resistance; the disorganized condition of non-Christian peoples and their dissatisfaction with their religions; the fanatical zeal of the recent converts to Islam; the ambition of the Caliphs to create and govern a great Moslem theocracy; the use of the sword to win converts to the new faith, and the license given to the conquerors to gratify lust and to acquire booty. There is no doubt that every one of these reasons, besides many others, contributed to the rapid rise and extension of Islam throughout the regions named, during the first period of conquest. At times one or more of these conditions contributed in a conspicuous manner, while in other places and under other conditions different motives prevailed.

It is probably true that, in most if not in every instance of conquest, the offer of Islam was made to the unbelievers. If they accepted, they were expected to join the ranks of the invaders. If they refused to embrace the religion of their threatening foe, they might be put to the sword or compelled to pay heavy tribute for the privilege of continuing to live. Even to the present day, this custom of an annual tax to a Mohammedan Government is in practice and is required of all non-Moslem subjects that they may have the right to live. It is called the life tax.

The entrance of Islam into China was less violent. There is a tradition that Mohammed mentioned China as a place from which knowledge could be obtained. It is know however, that in the 6th century there was considerable trade between China and Arabia, which was further extended in the 7th century, then also reaching into Persia. In the Chinese Annals of the province of Kwangtung, of which Caton is the capital, bearing date 618-907, the following passage occurs4:

At the beginning of the T'ang dynasty there came to Canton a number of strangers, from the kingdoms of Armam, Cambodia, Medina and several other countries. These strangers worshiped heaven and had neither statue, idol or image in their temples. The Kingdom of Medina is close to that of India and it is in this kingdom that the religion of these strangers, which is different from that of Buddha, originated. They not eat pork or drink wine and they regard an unclean the flesh of any animal not killed by themselves... Having asked and obtained from the emperor permission to reside in Canton, they built magnificent houses of a style different to that of our country. They were very rich and obeyed a chief chosen by themselves."

China was reached not only by the merchants who follows the sea routes of trade but also by Moslem diplomats who came by way of Persia.

In 638 A.D. Africa was entered by Moslem preachers and the propagation of Mohammedanism in that country is still going on. In fact there is today no country in which such conquests are being made as here. During the first period the northern part of Africa wag conquered, and in 710 the Arabs crossed into Spain. In the modern period, Mohammedan propagandists went west from Egypt and from the Northeast as far as Chad, while slave dealers penetrated from Zanzibar as far as the Great Lakes. The modern movements into Africa are led by the slave dealer and the Arab trader, and by the Senousi brotherhood, which began in 1843 and is called the Jesuit order of Islam. They are found in the Libyan Oases, Fezzan, Tripoli, Algeria, Senegambia, the Sudan and Somalia. They represent one of the strongest modern advance movements among Moslems.

Within a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, an adventurous Arab chief advanced into India as far as Sind, and settled in the valley a the Indus. His successors were dislodged but again an Afghan chief named Mahmud at the very beginning of the 11th century began a series of raids on India. He was a savage leader and one of his chief objects was apparently the winning of the fabulous wealth of the country. He was the first Moslem chief to obtain a permanent footing in that country, and toward the close of the 12th century one of the generals of Muhammad, the successor of Mahmud, took the city of Delhi, which was then the seat of one of the strongest Hindu powers. The northern provinces of India were overrun as far as Benares. After Mahmud's death the Moslem empire thus begun fell in pieces while the Indian provinces still remained Mohammedan. Various dynasties succeeded and during the reign of the Tujhlak Dynasty, Tamerlane crossed the Afghan borders and captured and sacked Delhi. This was in 1399. In 1526 the Moguls (another spelling for the Mongols) invaded India. For more than two centuries they ruled over the greater part of India.

The Medieval period embraces the rise of the Ottoman and the Mogul Empires. This phase of Islam is of special interest at this time. The early records of the Mongols have not been preserved. The Mongol historian declares that they sprang from a blue wolf. The first name widely known in history is Jenghiz Khan, the eighth in descent from their first king. This man was born on the banks of the Onon river in 1162, and was placed upon the throne when thirteen years of age. In 1206 at an assembly of the notables of his kingdom he set himself at their head and shattered his only remaining enemies upon the steppes of Mongolia. Spurred on by this victory, he planned an invasion of the empire of the Kin Tartars, who had wrested Northern China from the Chinese Sung Dynasty. He met with Success in all his battles in Mongolia and, breaking through the Great Wall of China, he entered the province of Kansu. In 1213 he dispatched three armies to overrun the empire. He was eminently successful. The army of Jenghis knew no defeat. Its progress in every direction was unchecked. When satiated with blood and booty, it stayed its conquest and turned backwards. Jenghiz Khan was one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever seen. Starting as the chief of a petty Mongol tribe, he saw his armies victorious from the China Sea to the banks of the Dnieper. His empire rested upon no stable foundation, and so it dwindled away under the hand of his immediate degenerate successors, leaving nothing behind to indicate the triumph of his personal victories.

As a result of the Mongol invasion of Persia and Southern Russia, we have the Turks in Europe and Western Asia, since it was the armies of Jenghiz that drove the Osmanli ancestor from their home in Northern Asia and caused them to invade Bithynia.

Timur, or Tamerlane, a direct descendant from Jenghiz Khan; nearly two centuries later accomplished a notable conquest until he had resubjugated the whole of Central and Western Asia, from the Chinese Wall to the Mediterranean, and from the Siberian Steppes to the mouth of the Ganges. The series of Mogul Mohammedan Emperors who established and maintained in India for several generations the Great Mogul Empire sprang from the line of Jengiz Khan and Tamerlane.

Space will not permit our tracing in detail the story of the Mogul Emperors in India, which plays so conspicuous a part in the development of Mohammedanism in that country. We may add, however, that, until about 1200 A.D., Hindu princes ruled in petty principalities, when the first Mohammedan invasion into the northern provinces took place. This was the beginning of Moslem rule, culminating in the Great Mogul Empire, which was brought to the zenith of its power by the Emperors Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb, and which declined and disappeared under Muhammed Shah and Alamgir.

The story of the splendor and power of the Mogul Emperors is of interest, both because of their Moslem faith, and because of the large number of Mohammedans over whom they held sway. These ancient empires have since been merged into a more orderly government under the rule of England, but the Moslem populations remain.

The Malay Archipelago was not entered until the 14th century, when the northern coast of Sumatra was occupied. Then Java became a Moslem mission field and soon was sending missionaries to the Spice Islands. Even today, Mohammedans and Christians are competing for the conquest of the remaining pagan tribes in these Islands, which is also the case in many parts of Africa.

Islam entered Burma from India through merchant missionaries; this was also the case in Russia and in all places where Mohammedanism is now advancing. Outside of Turkey, the sword at the present time plays but little part in the propagation of Islam. In Burma, the Malay Archipelago and many parts of Africa, the increase m the number of Mohammedans from conversion is alarmingly large.

The Ottoman Turks are descendants of many and extensive tribes emanating from the tablelands and plains of Central and Western Asia. These were pastoral, predacious, nomadic and warlike. They had various names, such as Turkomans, Kirghises, Usbecgs and Nogays, as well as many others derived from the district occupied or from a conspicuous chief. They were also known, and are often so designated at the present time, as Tartan, while their ancestors appear to have been known to the ancients as Scythians. It is possible that these races had a certain ethnic unity and they certainly made use of a speech that was widely understood among them. Before the time of Mohammed these peoples migrated from the barren tablelands of Mongolia and spread over the steppes of Turkestan, and appeared upon the banks of the Oxus. At a subsequent date they came into contact with Mohammedans in Persia and gradually embraced Islam, entering into the services of the Caliph of Bagdad. They called themselves Turkomans. The Suljukians, who settled in Khorasan, Persia, were the first Turks to become conspicuous in history. They increased in number and power until they ruled Persia, Armenia and Syria, the greater part of Asia Minor with the country from the Oxus to beyond the Jaxartes, reaching from the Mediterranean to the borders of China.

The Suljukians surpassed all other Moslems of their age in fierce intolerance, and thus it was that the crusades were provoked, producing a unique event in the history of the relations of Christianity to Islam.

About the middle of the 13th century, a tribe of Turks not Suljukian, were driven by Mongol invaders from Khorasan into Armenia in search of pasturage for their flocks. Out of these came Ertogrul, who turned westward and sought settlement in Asia Minor. He came into Phrygia and Bithynia and there his son Othman, or Osman, was reared, who became the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Othman became head of his tribe and was a loyal subject to the Sultan of Iconium, who did not interfere with his freedom to prey upon his neighbors. In 1299 he began a more independent career, which to his death in 1326 was marked by gradual conquest. until, with his capital at Brousa he ruled over Phrygia, Galatia and Bithynia.

Thus began the long line of Turkish Sultans whose sway was gradually extended over all Asia Minor, Armenia, Syria, Arabia, Egypt and Tripoli in Africa, and Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Servia, Bulgaria, Roumania in Europe, until even the walls of Vienna were besieged by the armies of the Ottoman Sultan seeking to break through the barriers into the heart of Europe and to carry Islam to the North Sea. Thus the rise and spread of Mohammedanism in the Near East is briefly recorded. At the height of its power all Europe stood aghast at the threatened possibility of universal Moslem conquest. The Pope of Rome is said to have declared that he feared the Sultan of Turkey more than he feared the devil himself.

That part of the third division of our topic, dealing with the Wahabi revival and Dervish movements, we will consider under another heading. We will here but refer to the decline in this period of Moslem national supremacy.

The decline of Mohammedanism as a political power in the last century has been almost as rapid as its rise was under Abu Bekr and his successors in the first period, and the Ottomans, and the Mogul Emperor in the second period. Much of the quick rise of different Modern leaders, eventuating in the creation of an Empire, can be accounted for in part by the peculiar conditions that seemed especially to favor the rapid advance of an intrepid leader backed by a horde of followers inspired by the belief that, through war, they were rendering a service to God and that the booty thus secured was theirs by divine right. To this is to be added the belief that death in battle insured an immediate entrance into the most entrancing joys of paradise. There is no doubt that Islam was able to inspire, its votaries with a sense of unity wholly lacking in its opponents.

On two notable historic occasions, unbelieving barbarians have conquered the followers of Mohammed, the Suljuk Turks in the 11th century, and the Mongols in the 13th, and in each case the conquered, have forced their religion upon their conquerors.

In addition to the so-called Moslem lands and countries that contain large numbers of Mohammedans, like China and Russia, there are scattered Moslem populations surrounded by unbelievers. Among these are the Polish-speaking Moslems, of Tartar origin, in Lithuania, who inhabit the districts of Kovno, Vilna and Crodno; the Dutch speaking Moslems of Cape Colony, and the Indian Coolies that have carried their faith to the West Indies and to British and Dutch Guiana.

As we trace the decline of Moslem power, we note the early dissensions in the territory invaded by Jenghiz Khan, requiring a second victory by his descendant Tamerlane. Nest we note the Mogul Emperors in India flashing across history with all the brilliancy of a fabulously wealthy eastern court, remaining for a brief period like a dream or vision of a glorious past, and then disappearing, except for the broken monuments of their former supremacy. The regions ruled by this series of brilliant Moslem emperors passed under the government of a Christian queen.

We turn then to the rule of the Saracens in Spain, who aspired to invade northern Europe, but who were compelled to withdraw to Africa, and Spain passed again under a Christian government.

The Ottoman Empire that once held sway over the country stretching from Persia and India to the Adriatic, including vast areas in Europe and the entire southern littoral of the Mediterranean, now possesses no territory upon the southern shores of the Mediterranean and has but a slight hold upon Europe. Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli and Egypt have all passed from Moslem rule to government by Christian powers. Persia, once proud of her position among the Mohammedan nations, is now but a vassal of a Christian state. The fact is almost startling, that, whereas, a few centuries ago, Mohammedan kingdoms and empires were the most powerful and dreaded governments upon the face of all the earth, now not one remains with even a semblance of independent power possessing the elements of continuity. Islam as a national force in the world has ceased to be, and so the dream of Mohammed of a mighty theocracy under the under the of the Caliph of Islam has passed from earth without the possibility of return.

It is a question worthy at least of speculation, if the loss of political and national power has not tended to drive Moslems back to the contemplation of things spiritual. As hopes of conquest have been destroyed, devout Moslems have sought spiritual victories over themselves and others, as is manifested in some of the more modern mystical developments. These are questions worthy of serious consideration.

1 Cf. S. Wellhausen Reste arabische Heidentums 2te. Aus. Berlin 1907, or G.A. Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, Social and Religious, New York, 1902, pp. 123-135.

2 New York 1877, pp. 13 and 14.

3 Ireland, The Far-Eastern Tropics, Boston, 1905, p. 4.

4 Quoted by Arnold in The Preaching of Islam, pp. 294-295.

The Christian Approach to Islam, by James L. Barton, Pilgrim Press 1918, Chapter II (pages 16-31).

Essays by James Levi Barton
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