Rise of Islam

In this Blog I talking about the rise of Islam. In AD 622, Prophet Muhammad & his followers slipped away to the Medina. Their fortunes began to turn after they successfully defended Medina against an alliance of their enemies in AD 627. Within three years, he would capture Mecca & carve out a significant kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Early Expansion

Having secured the base, the prophet sent out messengers to the chieftains of neighboring tribes asking them to join his cause. This included Yemeni & Omani groups that had tired of Persian rule & wanted to push them out. Omanis were the first people to have converted to the religion. The prophet died in AD 632 just two years after he had conquered Mecca. However, his immediate successors would rapidly expand the empire. The Arabs defeated the Persians at the Battle of Qadisiyyah in AD 637 which led to the fall of Ctesiphon, the capital of Sassanians.  Soon they will take whole of the Persian Empire. The Byzantines put up more spirited resistance in their heartlands of Anatolia but the Arabs captured Jerusalem by AD 638 and controlled whole of the Syria, Palestine & Egypt by AD 641. Yemeni & Omani warriors played an important role in these early conquests.

Within a decade of Muhammad’s death, the Arabs came to control a vast empire. Unfortunately, such a rapid increase in wealth & power inevitably led to rivalries & tension between the emerging elite. The power struggle culminated in the Battle of Karbala in AD 680 where Muhammad’s grandson Husain ibn Ali and his followers were massacred by a much larger army sent by Umayyad Caliph Yazid. Husain is said to have died with his infant son in his arms. This incident created the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that exists to this day.

Land of Zunj

The Umayyads next decided to impose direct control over the Omanis who, as early & willing converts to Islam, had come to expect a degree of autonomy. The Omanis were initially successful but the enemy kept increasing the reinforcements& eventually defeated Omanis. Around AD 700, Omani leaders fled by ship along with their families and followers to Africa, which Arabs called the Land of Zunj.  Umayyad rule came to end in AD 750 when the dynasty was overthrown by Abu-al-Abbas. Given all this bloodshed, another wave of refugees fled to Africa. In this way, the east coast of Africa came to have a smattering of Arab settlements.

Remaining Omanis withdrew to the rough Al Hazar Mountains around Nizwa. There they developed a distinct branch of Islam called Ibadhi. To this day, the majority of Omanis follow Ibadhi Islam.

The Conquest of Sindh

By AD 711, Arab armies had reached Spain and within a few years, they had won control over the Iberian peninsula. The Umayyads were simultaneously pushing east and, in AD 705, an Arab army invaded Makran coast and took over Baluchistan. This brought them to the borders of Sindh and first direct encounter with Indic civilization. The Kingdom of Sindh was ruled at that time by Raja Dahir.

In the second attempt, General Muhammad bin Qasim defeated Raja Dahir. Despite the relative ease with which they had taken over Sindh, the Arabs found it difficult to expand beyond their foothold in the subcontinent. The Gurjara-Pratihara empire rules over much of northern India at that time & its armies easily fended off the Arabs. Indian inscriptions also record that Arabs attempted to push into the Deccan through Gujarat & were repulsed by the Chalukya king Vikramaditya II. Indeed, Hindu rulers seem to have made counter-raids and continued to rule over Afghanistan until the end of the tenth century.

With eastward expansion blocked off, the Arabs turned their attention north towards central Asia. The Turkic people, in the middle of eight century, they found themselves caught between two great powers. While The Chinese Tang dynasty was pushing in from the east and the Abbasid caliphate was pushing in from its base in Iran. The two faced each other at the Battle of Talas in AD 751. And the Arabs decisively defeated the Tang army. Thus, the central Asia come to the Islamic sphere of influence than the Chinese.

(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)

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