When rumours spread among Muslims that Mohamed had died, many refused to believe it. Omar Ibn al-Khattab, one of Mohamed’s leading companions and a decisive figure in Islamic history, took to the then Islamic community’s single mosque, and bellowed that he would cut off the head of anyone saying that Mohamed was dead. The news sunk in only when Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq, Mohamed’s very first companion, the father of his beloved wife Aisha, and the man who would succeed him in leading the Islamic community, solemnly proclaimed that “for those who worshiped Mohamed, he is now dead; for those who worshiped God, he is alive and immortal.”
Mohamed died in 632, in Medina, in western al-Hijaz, in today’s Saudi Arabia. His death was the first step in the transformation of the call to a new religion that had spread across the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century into a state that, in the next hundred and fifty years, would dominate an area reaching from China to Spain.
Mohamed is usually credited with creating a state. This is inaccurate. He laid the foundations of a political entity based in Medina, the oasis to which he had emigrated from his home-town, Mecca, ten years before his death, and that slowly evolved to become his seat of power. He also had a clear mission: spreading the new religion among Arabia’s tribes. He presented, what many came to see as, a constitution: the Koran that Muslims, then and now, believe to be the revealed, literal, and unaltered word of God. And crucially, he put forward a new frame of reference: a monotheistic religion that followed the traditions of the messages attributed to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
But the community that Mohamed presided upon until his death was not a state. It lacked any formal governing institutions; there were no mechanisms for consistently generating rules and regulations, let alone a clear structure for enforcing them. The community lacked any administrative structure; there were no established revenue streams upon which the community could reliably depend. And there was no political system that Mohamed had sanctioned and that Muslims could, later on, draw upon – a point that would preoccupy the Islamic world for centuries.
One factor facilitated the community’s transition post Mohamed. Few months before his death, Mohamed recited the final verses of the Koran that proclaimed, decisively, that “the religion has been completed”. No more revelations, no more Koranic verses, and no more divine rules. For some, this meant that after twenty three years of preaching, Mohamed had accomplished his mission; “God’s final prophet had made whole God’s true religion.” That is why most Muslims refer to his last sermon that he had delivered in his sole pilgrimage to Mecca few months before his death as “the farewell address”.
This completeness of the religion is a unique feature to Islam – and one that, also, has played a major role throughout Arabic and Islamic history. Unlike Judaism or Christianity, Islam, after Mohamed’s death, did not need to be developed, advanced, or broadened. There was no need for a St. Paul to come along and define – or progress – the religion. Politically, this meant that in the period immediately after Mohamed’s death, no political player could have anchored his claim to succeed Mohamed on the basis of any divine mandate, or on the idea of continuing the ‘message’.
Islam’s rejection of the notion of clergy, priesthood, or ministry was another barrier in front of any political aspirant from using religion to legitimise his claims to leadership. Among Mohamed’s thousands of believers, few dozen companions were prominently positioned as grandees of the Islamic community. Most of those were early believers of Mohamed who had suffered persecution in Mecca, and who were the nucleus of the community that grew round him in Medina. But the lack of any religious institution or process for regulating the religion after Mohamed’s death denied any of those companions – let alone anyone else – the basis upon which any one of them could have imposed his candidacy to lead the Islamic community.
The lack of a clear successor after Mohamed’s death necessitated a process that guaranteed the buy-in of the most influential factions of the Islamic community at the time. To a large extent, bottom-up politics, in a tribal form, was the way to choose Mohamed’s successor, as opposed to a single faction imposing its will by force.
But that crated a challenge. Mohamed’s death came almost immediately after he had achieved two major triumphs: subjugating Mecca, his home town that he had fled a decade before his death; and uniting the Arabian Peninsula under Islam. Subduing Mecca, which for centuries had been the focal point of Arabian pilgrimage and a key trading centre in the Peninsula, meant diluting the influence of its largest merchant families, who were among the richest in the whole of Arabia. With Islam becoming the sole socio-political framework in Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding area, Mohamed’s early companions emerged as the new leading figures in this new community; the scions of Mecca’s wealthy merchant families had to contend with the new order.
In the two years between subduing Mecca and Mohamed’s death, the patriarchs and scions of Mecca’s leading families had no apparent qualms about paying tribute to Mohamed and submitting to his rule, which according to Islam, was submitting to God’s will. This understanding allayed their egos and protected their prestige. Mohamed’s death, however, meant that those wealthy merchant families – Mecca’s old aristocracy – who, as new converts to Islam, had no chance, whatsoever, to succeed Mohamed, would have to submit to the authority of a group of Mohamed’s early companions, who were of conspicuously less wealth and cachet among Arabia’s tribes. In this regard, Mohamed’s death transformed the political-economy of the Arabian Peninsula. It weakened the region’s old aristocracy, and allowed for the emergence of a new elite, whose credentials were not based on wealth, or influence over the thriving caravan trading industry, rather on the degree of closeness that these individuals had had to Mohamed.
Before Islam, the Peninsula’s various tribes had a sense of belonging to a shared culture, primarily based on the Arabic language – and especially on Arabic poetry, the Arabs’ defining art form. Islam changed that. The new religion became the overarching frame that united the Arabs. The change was not simply that a religion – with its rules, prohibitions, and rituals – replaced a culture and an art form. Islam revolutionised how the Arabs saw themselves. The religion’s rise to dominate the Peninsula, including the early Islamic community’s many wars to crush adversaries and expand geographic footprint, was a long and exacting experience that formed the Arabic Islamic mind. It entailed struggle, suffering, and growth. The Islamic community went through hardships, triumphs, defeats, pains, and many moments of exhilaration. To a large extent, this experience changed – matured – the Arabic mind.
Out of Mohamed’s twenty three years of ‘messaging’, the Arabs – especially after uniting the Peninsula under Islam – came out with a much sharpened sense of their own identity. It was the first time in the entire Arab history that the tribes of the Peninsula come together under a shared umbrella – a frame of reference that is real, solid, powerful, and according to the belief system that they ascribed to, ordained by God. Not only did this emerging identity change how the Arabs saw themselves, it also changed their view of the ‘other’. Now that they had become God’s ‘chosen people’, they viewed the ‘other’ as either in need of the salvation that Islam brings, or as an infidel.
This worldview entailed a major change in the Arab psyche. For centuries, the Arabs’ interaction with their immensely wealthy – and by far more culturally sophisticated – Byzantine and Persian neighbours was based on their seeking to gain access to these neighbours’ markets. And, throughout these interactions, the nomadic and trading Arab tribes had imported bits and pieces of these neighbours’ arts and culture. In all of these interactions, the Arabs had always been the lesser party, the junior player, the importer, and at times, the subject to the foreign master (for example in the case of the small Arabic kingdom of the Ghassanids in the eastern Mediterranean that evolved to become a vassal of the Byzantine empire). The new identity that Islam had given rise to changed that. This identity triggered an enormous confidence that convinced swaths of Arabs that they – the nation chosen by God, the people of his “last prophet” – were, at least as equal, if not superior, to their neighbours.
Unifying the Arabs under such a strong identity unleashed a mission. Mohamed had made it very clear that his message was to the whole world, the entire humanity, not solely for the Arabs. The prospect of a cohesive Arabic community, anchored on a united Arabian Peninsula, fired by the belief that this is the “best nation amongst the peoples” (as the Koran describes the Muslims), and whose mission is to spread “God’s word” to the world, incentivised the Arabs to take their religion to their neighbours. This meant confronting the Persian and Byzantine empires that had ruled the ancient world for centuries. Suddenly, the Arabs, a group of nomads and trading tribes that had been dispersed in the barren – and from the Persian and Byzantine perspectives, remote – Peninsula, emerged as a ‘nation’ bent on spreading a new religion, converting the peoples of neighbouring countries to their belief system – and on altering the, then dominant, world order.
The message that the Arabs carried with them was hardly only a new religion. Mohamed’s legacy entailed a social vision. The marginalisation of the Peninsula’s old aristocracy of merchant families and the rise to prominence of a new class of leaders encompassing individuals from various social strata and economic backgrounds – in addition to Islam’s emphasis on social equality – imbued the Arabs’ message to their neighbouring nations with an inspiring force that proved very helpful in their quest to take over Iraq, Persia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt, countries that were suffering vast economic exploitation and concentration of political and economic power. The Arab Muslims presented themselves as the carriers of ‘God’s call’ as well as the harbingers of social justice.
The Arabs carried with them also a much romanticised view of their early Islamic community. As the Arabs united under the banner of Islam, the emerging narrative of this new community emphasised brotherly support, compassion, and self-denial. This narrative was perpetuated through tens of tales about that early community, and that the advancing Muslims spread among the new converts to Islam. The various, and occasionally very bloody, wars that this community had engaged in – initially against the Meccans and later against various tribes and other religious communities – were either marginalised in this narrative or presented decisively as struggles of self-defence. The emerging narrative emphasised compassion and mercy and diluted violence and assertion.
Mohamed’s character became an integral part of that narrative. The inspirational and moving episodes in Mohamed’s life – his steadfastness in the face of the brutality of Mecca’s elite; his humility; his tenderness towards his wives, children, and grandchildren; his repeated emphasis that he is but a “man like all of you”; and his love for life (for example his emphasis on loving women and perfume) – became the defining characteristics of that narrative. Mohamed the warrior, however, went to the annex. This accentuated the humane message that the Arab armies and missionaries had carried with them, and gave it a strong force of ‘connecting’ with the, then, repressed peoples of Persia, Iraq, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt.
History has recorded the details of Mohamed’s life, to a relatively high level of detail (even if the first surviving complete biography of his life was written roughly a century after his death). This meant that the Islamic narrative could draw on many details in Mohamed’s life to accentuate Islam’s message in the lands it was spreading into.
After Mohamed’s death, this message went global. In the last decade of his life, and as Medina had grown to be Mohamed’s ‘headquarters’, it also became a magnet for all Muslims, and for those who found Mohamed’s message appealing. By the last year of his life, and especially after the fall of Mecca and as Arabia’s largest tribes quickly embraced Islam, Medina became the political nerve-centre of the entire Peninsula. Companions, followers, ardent believers, aspirants, and ambitious adventurers – all wanted to be close to Mohamed. His death changed that; the crucial factor that had attracted – and kept – all of those people in Medina disappeared. In less than three decades, the majority of the leading figures of the community that surrounded Mohamed immigrated to Iraq, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt: rulers of newly acquired lands, teachers of Islam to new converts, heads of merchant houses, or prominent retirees whose closeness to Mohamed made them luminaries in the societies they had settled in.
Islam had united the Arabic tribes that had used to be scattered across the Peninsula, and Mohamed’s death dispersed them again. But there was a major difference between the Arabs’ dispersal before Islam and post Mohamed’s death. In the latter, they not only believed that they were carrying God’s message to their neighbours and that they were at least as equal to those neighbours, they also had a geographical anchor: Medina, Mecca, and the region surrounding them, the land from which they had set out to spread the ‘message’. To a large extent, the special positioning that Islam had accorded to Medina and Mecca turned these two towns and the entire region (al-Hijaz) into the Arabs’ emotional focal point. And though, in the following centuries, other cities would become the political, social, and cultural capitals of the Islamic empire, al-Hijaz – and especially Medina – would retain that status of being the emotional anchor, ‘the Prophet’s town’, the charming oasis in the middle of the desert, the place where early Muslims had found refuge from their persecution in Mecca and that had witnessed the defining moments in Mohamed’s life.
The dispersal of the Islamic community across the newly acquired lands – and later the rapid geographic expansion of the Islamic state – created, for the Arabs of the seventh and eighth century, a new structure of continued departure and return between the Arabian Peninsula and the neighbouring lands they had conquered. Political, economic, financial, cultural, and social links were now connecting the various centres of the sprawling empire with Mecca and Medina. These interactions triggered an exponential increase in travel in-between the different centres of this sprawling empire. Traditions, heritages, social norms, and dialects started to mix. Trade within the Islamic lands exploded. Within few centuries, this structure of departure and return between al-Hijaz and the rest of the Middle East, and the social and cultural connections that it had generated, entrenched strong commonalities and powerful links between the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt. The earliest form of the Arab world came into being.