Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The original Arab campaigns of expansion began as a way to keep nomadic tribes faithful to Islam, but they became conquests for lands to tax and rule. After early successes, the Arabs kept moving until they had conquered the Persian Empire and much of the eastern Byzantine Empire. The price of this expansion was a deep rift within Islam and the first civil war that pitted Muslim against Muslim.

Summary of Event

The Arab army, by 637, was poised to destroy what remained of the Persian Empire and further expand the new Islamic Empire Islamic Empire . Begun in 632 when nomadic Arab tribesmen strayed from Islam at the death of Muḥammad Muḥammad (the Prophet) , the early military campaigns waged by the first caliph and Muḥammad’s close friend, Abū Bakr Abū Bakr (first Islamic caliph) , successfully subdued the errant tribes and reenforced their faithfulness to Islam. To keep the tribes faithful, Abū Bakr continued the military campaigns and moved his forces northward into Byzantine and Persian lands. They met with little resistance and were able to subdue the subjects of both empires easily. [kw]Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East (637-657) [kw]Middle East, Islam Expands Throughout the (637-657) Middle East, Islam and Islam;Middle East Arabia;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Byzantine Empire;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Iran;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Iraq;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Turkey;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Africa;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Israel/Palestine;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Egypt;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Expansion and land acquisition;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Religion;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;637-657: Islam Expands Throughout the Middle East[0370] Muḥammad Abū Bakr ՙUmar I ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān ՙAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib ՙĀ՚ishah MuՙĀwiyah I

ՙUmar I ՙUmar I , the second caliph and a close companion to Muḥammad, continued these successful military forays, and ՙUmar’s forces defeated Byzantine forces in Syria. During the next twenty years, the Arabian armies continued to expand the Islamic territories and the caliphs consolidated power within the empire. The Arabic successes were not without price, however. The expansion of empire and consolidation of power led to the first civil war, which pitted Muslim against Muslim and created an enduring rift within Islam.

In the spring of 637, the Arabian army destroyed the Persian army at the Battle of al-Qadisiyah Qadisiyah, Battle of (637) (Kadisiya), captured the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, and soon took the rest of Iraq north to Mosul. This victory, coupled with the Arabian victory over the Byzantine forces at the Yarmūk River in Syria, left the Arabs in control of two rich, fertile lands.

In Syria and Iraq, many people were of Arab origin and quickly adjusted to the new rulers. Christians and Jews had been persecuted by Byzantine and Persian rulers. Under Islam, they were considered ahl al-kitab (peoples of the book) who had received authentic scriptures from God and were allowed to practice their faiths freely according to stipulations in the Qur՚ān. Subjects of the new Islamic Empire paid both a poll and a land tax that were lower than those paid to the previous rulers. As protected subjects, they were treated fairly, which increased their acceptance of their Arab rulers.

The Arab forces continued their successful conquests. Between 639 and 642, they invaded Egypt, vanquished the Byzantine forces at Heliopolis, and conquered the port city of Alexandria. Before the end of 644, ՙUmar’s forces controlled much of the Persian Empire and had wrested Egypt from the Byzantine Empire.

As the Islamic Empire grew, ՙUmar created the amsar (armed garrison camps) for housing Arabs, separate from the conquered, non-Muslim peoples. The most important amsar were Basra and Al-Kufa in Iraq; Al-FusṬāt (now part of Cairo), Egypt; Qum, Iran; and Damascus, Syria, which was already a bustling city when the Arab garrison moved in. These camps controlled the surrounding areas, which grew into bustling cities around the newly built governor’s palace and mosque.

Caliph ՙUmar did not give fiefdoms to occupying forces. Instead, he doled out state pay to the military from the taxes and plunder obtained from conquered areas. ՙUmar’s system of pay, according to military service and date of conversion to Islam, created an elite group of Arabs who would eventually split over questions of power and wealth.

Between 642 and 644, ՙUmar’s forces moved from Iraq into the western reaches of Iran. They defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Nahavand (642) Nahavand, Battle of (642) and continued eastward, taking Eşfahān, Hamadān, Rayy, and Qazvīn in turn. Meanwhile, the Arab forces in the west conquered Tripoli in North Africa. ՙUmar was stabbed to death by a Persian prisoner-cum-servant while in the mosque at Medina in 644. The third caliph, ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān , was one of the Prophet’s earliest converts and his son-in-law, but was also a member of the rich Umayyad family who had originally spurned Muḥammad and his message. Many Muslims could not forgive this.

ՙUthmān further damaged his image and outraged the emirs (territorial governors) by requiring that they send all revenues back to Medina to be tallied and allotted by his administrators. ՙUthmān offended many of the religious authorities when he ordered that a single version of the Qur՚ān be prepared and used. He also offended most of the powerful Medinan families, including Muḥammad’s own Quraysh, by appointing members of his own Umayyad family to government positions.

The murder of ՙUthmān.

(H. Bricher and B. F. Waitt)

The third caliphate was not a complete failure, however. Between 649 and 650, MuՙĀwiyah I Muՙāwiyah I , governor of Syria, conquered Cyprus with the newly formed Arab navy and seized the formerly invulnerable island of Aradus (Arwād). By 651, Arab forces had secured much of Armenia, parts of the Caucasus, Iran as far as the Oxus River, Herāt in Afghanistan, the Sind in India, and Nishapur, the capital of the eastern Iranian province of Khorāsān. The rest of Khorāsān capitulated by 654. The next year, the Arab navy ousted the Byzantine navy from the eastern Mediterranean at the Battle of the Masts Masts, Battle of the (655) near the Lycian coast.

Despite these territorial gains, ՙUthmān was still unpopular. A group of Muslim soldiers, angry because they felt they were not receiving just rewards for their services, stormed ՙUthmān’s house in 656, intent on raising their complaints in person. In the attack, ՙUthmān was wounded and subsequently died. Immediately after ՙUthmān’s death, a small group of followers proclaimed ՙAlī ՙAlī (fourth caliph) ibn Abī Ṭālib, Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the fourth caliph. Because of his close familial ties to Muḥammad, his followers felt ՙAlī could be a religious and political successor to the Prophet. ՙAlī stressed equality among all Muslims, and his supporters hoped for a return to the true Islam under his leadership.

ՙUthmān’s family and followers, indeed many Muslims, questioned ՙAlī’s election. Because ՙAlī had failed to avenge ՙUthmān’s murder and because the Quraysh believed their standing in Medina was threatened by ՙAlī’s policy of equality among all Muslims, ՙĀ՚ishah ՙĀ՚ishah , the Prophet’s favorite wife, mustered an army for the first fitna (civil war). In December, 656, at the so-called Battle of the Camel, Camel, Battle of the (656) ՙAlī’s forces attacked and defeated ՙĀ՚ishah’s army outside Basra, sustaining his claim to the caliphate.

Seeking to avenge ՙUthmān’s murder, his kinsman, Syrian governor MuՙĀwiyah I, mustered forces in 657 and brought them to meet ՙAlī’s army at Siffin on the upper Euphrates River. The two forces fought until MuՙĀwiyah’s men requested arbitration according to the Qur՚ān. ՙAlī agreed, but the arbitration over ՙUthmān’s murder devolved into a dispute over the caliphate. The outcome was an agreement that the caliph would henceforth be selected by committee following the historic precedent set by selection of the first three caliphs.

ՙAlī lost much of his support during the arbitration because of his compromise over the succession and because many felt that he was subjecting the will of Allah to human judgment. As ՙAlī’s position weakened, MuՙĀwiyah claimed the caliphate of Jerusalem for himself, deepening the Islamic rift that had begun during ՙUthmān’s caliphate.


The early Arab expansion, initiated to occupy the restless nomadic tribes, evolved into a conquest of land and wealth for Islam. Arab success led to the formation of an Islamic Empire that continued to expand until it reached its zenith in the eighth century.

Between 637 and 656, both ՙUmar and ՙUthmān oversaw the growth of this empire. With conquest came plunder, new peoples to rule and tax, old families and tribes to appease, power to consolidate, cities and administrations to build, and, inevitably, a rising discontent among Muslims over the distribution of power and wealth. ՙUthmān’s murder caused this dispute to erupt into an ugly struggle for power that rent the Empire in two within a year of his death.

ՙAlī was proclaimed caliph as a reaction to Umayyad power in the Islamic Empire under ՙUthmān. His claim to the caliphate caused the first Islamic civil war, ripping Islamic unity apart and engendering continued hostility between Syrian and Iraqi Muslims. The Khāijites Khāijites[Khaijites] splintered off into an Islamic extremist group, setting a precedent for politics to force the formation of new theology. ՙAlī’s own supporters eventually formed a minority religious group, the Shīՙites Shīՙite Islam[Shiite Islam] . The ultimate consequence of the first expansion of Islam and the power struggles it engendered occurred between 657 and 661, when the Islamic Empire was split between two rival Muslim groups: ՙAlī and MuՙĀwiyah.

Islam had united the Arabs for the first time. Soon, however, the entire empire stood divided. The faithful were concerned by how far the Islamic Empire had strayed from the teachings of the Prophet, and they became just as determined to find a way back.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Explores the philosophical, religious, and political movements that have driven the Muslims throughout their history. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Emory C. Islam: Origin and Belief. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. A concise look at Islam and its expansion between 570 and 1517. Also includes discussion of Muḥammad and Islam’s beginnings. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabrieli, Francesco. Muḥammad and the Conquests of Islam. Translated by Virginia Luling and Rosamund Linell. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. A narrative account of the rise of the Prophet and Islam. Also explores the resulting Islamic conquests in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. This work provides a comprehensive investigation of the establishment of an international Islamic Empire. Volume 2 examines Islamic expansionism in the Middle Ages. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002. This seminal work covers Arab history from the pre-Islamic through the twentieth century, including empire building, societal structures, religion, art, and popular culture. Illustrations, maps, extensive bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jandora, John Walter. Militarism in Arab Society: An Historiographical and Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A detailed history of Arab military culture, with a discussion of MuՙĀwiyah and his descendants and “Muslim warriors of medieval times.” Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaegi, Walter E. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. This work explores how and why the Byzantine Empire lost many valuable provinces to the Arab conquests. Map, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. The Arabs in History. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a narrative overview of the Arabs and their historical significance, with a concentration on social and economic history. Focuses mostly on the social, everyday impact of historical events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tritton, A. S. The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ՙUmar. 1930. Reprint. London: F. Cass, 1970. This study documents ՙUmar’s endeavors to deal administratively with nonconverted subjects of the Islamic state, both in terms of guarantees of religious practice and fiscal responsibilities. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, William Montgomery. A Short History of Islam. Boston: Oneworld, 1996. Provides a concise history of Islamic expansionism, the formation of the caliphate, and the politics of Islam. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History