Brief History Of Early Islamic Expansion

The rise of Islam and its meteoric expansion as a religious and military power in a relatively short span of time is an unprecedented phenomenon in world history. The monotheistic religion which was started by Prophet Mohammed in 610 A.D., resulted in uniting the warring tribes of Arabia into submission to the one God ‘Allah’, with ‘La-ilaha-ill-allah’ — ‘no God except Allah’ being its cardinal dogma that rejected all other gods except Allah.[1] With this rigid, dogmatic belief system, Prophet Mohammed brought an end to tribal factionalism among the scattered tribes of Arabs and established an imperialist state with strict laws and institutions from the city of Medina. Having conquered most regions of Arabia through military power, the Islamists thus sought to expand their dominion to external lands fired with a religious zeal.

The ‘Pious’ Caliphs And Religious-Imperialist Zeal For World Conquest

After the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632 A.D., four of his companions succeeded him, assuming the title of Caliph (Khalifa), which means ‘successor’. This period of the first four Caliphs is known as the Rashidun Caliphate and is considered the golden age of Islamic expansionism. The reign of the first Caliph Abu Bakr (632–634 A.D.) was spent in subjugating various Arab tribes who renounced Islam and returned to their pre-Islamic faith soon after the death of the Prophet, and in reinstating the suzerainty of Medina over these tribes.[2] Abu Bakr united all of Arabia under the banner of the Islamic crescent.

The real expansion of Islam outside Arabia began during the Caliphate of the second Caliph, Umar-bin-Akhtab (634 to 644 A.D.). Umar assumed the title of ‘Amir-ul-Mumnin’ or ‘Commander of the Faithful’ as he was guided not only by a political zeal, but also a religious zeal.[3] He was guided by the teachings of the Prophet to proselytize his faith and considered it his duty to convert all of humanity to Islam.[4] The Prophet had instilled a separate identity in his followers as the ‘Ahl-i-Kitaab’‘People of the Book’ who were different from the scripture-less idolaters of Arabia, and who were ordained to “fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem” until “they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity.” [5] The belief that they were doing the work of Allah motivated and united the Arabs as they set out on the mission to conquer the world for Islam.

First Wave Of Arab Islamic Expansion

Caliph Umar-bin-Akhtab’s ambitious missionary gaze first turned towards the two major world powers of the time — the Byzantine and the Sassanid empires. Under his zealous leadership, the invading armies of Islam made rapid conquests in these powerful empires within a decade. The major reason for these early victories of Islam was the Byzantine-Sassanid war that went on for over 25 years between the Romans and the Persians and weakened them considerably. The Persians had conquered large parts of Byzantium during the first decade of the war from 602–622 A.D., but emperor Heraclius raided Persian territories from 622–626 A.D. and forced the Persian king Khusro II into submission. The long-drawn war ultimately ended in a return to status quo ante bellum with the Sassanians withdrawing from the occupied Byzantine territories. While the war did not achieve anything significant, it had a devastating outcome as both sides exhausted their armies and their material and financial resources. As a result, both became vulnerable to the sudden barbaric invasions by the Arabs under the guidance of Caliph Umar within a few years. The first to fall were the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Palestine. The enervated Byzantines could not match the mobility of Arabian horses and camels of the invading Arab armies. After a six-month long siege, the oldest city in the world, Damascus fell and within a year i.e. 635–636 A.D., the whole of Syria was conquered.

In the year that followed, the marauding Arab armies attacked the Sassanid empire of Persia which included Iran, Iraq and Khorasan. Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of the Sassanians on the banks of the Tigris fell in 637 A.D. On the fateful day of battle, the Sassanian army disintegrated due to severe dust storms and the emperor deserted Ctesiphon. The Arabs marched into the capital unchallenged. Despite this early victory of the Arabs, the Sassanians put up a long fight to resist the invaders, but a series of well-coordinated military campaigns by the Arabs under the guidance of Umar led them to fully conquer Persia within a decade. The Sassanians eventually succumbed to the Arab onslaught and with the fall of Persia, the Caliphate had reached the frontiers of India by as early as 643 A.D.[6]

The ancient Byzantine province of Egypt in the west was the next to succumb to Islamic invasions. Egypt was invaded by the Arab general Amr-ibn-Al’as who was met with stiff resistance from the Byzantine armies. However, prolonged sieges and multiple reinforcements led the Arab invaders to conquer the city of Babylon and the ancient port city of Alexandria, the stronghold of the Byzantine navy in 640–641 A.D.[7] The fall of Egypt opened up new territories in northern Africa to the warriors of Amr-ibn-Al’as, who repeated his triumphant victory in Tripoli in the land of the Berbers. Most of these early Byzantine conquests of Islamic Arabs were in sparsely populated, desert regions with highly advanced, yet far flung urban centres of power. Large distances between major cities and towns consisting of an arid and hostile terrain meant lesser resistance for the Arab invaders. Thus, the prosperous, classical culture of the Byzantine empire was dealt a mortal blow by the Arabs as they ravaged the major cities and destroyed a much older and advanced civilization.

Second And Third Waves Of Arab Islamic Expansion

The second wave of expansion saw the Arab Muslims take their banner of Islam to faraway lands into the Turkish speaking territories of Central Asia, which included territories of Outer Mongolia, Bukhara, Tashkand and Samarkand etc. By 650 A.D. Islam had rooted itself firmly in these regions. “The supremacy of Islam in Central Asia was so firmly established that the Chinese ceased to dispute it.” [8]

As the third wave of Islamic expansion began in early 8th Century, the Arab armies reduced the Berber countries of northern Africa and crossed the Atlantic into Spain. The Arab general Musa despatched his Berber general Tariq across the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain in 711 A.D. The Arabs defeated the Visigothic king Roderick and marched into Spain. Within seven years, Spain, “one of the fairest and largest provinces of medieval Europe” was reduced to a province of the Caliphate. The Arabs named their new province Al-Andalus.[9]

By 720 A.D., the Arab armies entered southern France across the Pyrenees under the leadership of general Abdur Rehman. Unlike the easy victories over the thinly populated Byzantine and Persian territories, the thriving Gaul territories proved difficult to conquer. The Gauls gave the Arabs a tough fight at the Battle of Toulouse in 721 A.D. under the command of Duke Odo. The disastrous defeat of the Arabs at Toulouse checked the Arab incursions for the next eleven years, barring a few small raids. In 732 A.D., Abdur Rehman pressed northwards and defeated Odo in the Battle of Bordeaux. However, the northward march of the Arabs into Europe was halted finally by the decisive Battle of Tours in 732 A.D. Fought between Abdur Rehman and the Frankish leader Charles Martel (the Hammer), the battle ended with the defeat and killing of Abdur Rehman. With this fateful defeat, the Arab expansion into Europe was arrested for good.

Religious And Cultural Domination Of Arabized Islam

By 732 A.D., the first centenary of Prophet Mohammed’s death, the Arabs had established a vast, powerful empire, “extending from the Bay of Biscay to the Indus and the frontiers of China, from the Aral Sea to the upper Nile.” [10] The astonishingly easy and rapid Islamic conquests were not merely territorial victories, as a number of different creeds and races were assimilated into the Arabic-Islamic religion and culture. Since the pre-Islamic religions in these regions had lost hold over the minds of people, a vast majority of the newly conquered and converted Syrians, Berbers, Persians and Turks among others “were rapidly Islamised and their language and culture Arabicised,” with considerable ease.[11]

It is in the light of these early and swift military and religious-cultural victories of Islamic invaders that the stiffness of the heroic Indian resistance must be examined and assessed, for “the same Islamic armies had to struggle for 69 long years to make their first effective breach in the borders of India.” [12]


[1] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 6 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[2] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 7 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[3] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 7 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[4] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 8 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[5] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 8 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[6] – Heroic Hindu Resistance To Muslim Invaders, P 9 — Sita Ram Goel

[7] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 9 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[8] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 10 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[9] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 10 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[10] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 10 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[11] – Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Upto 1206 A.D., P 10 — Dr. Ram Gopal Mishra

[12] – Heroic Hindu Resistance To Muslim Invaders, P 9–10 — Sita Ram Goel

Featured Image Credit: The Caliphate In 750 A.D.

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