The Islamic Conquests

The Roots of War, Part 1

As diligent Bible students, most of us are familiar with the emergence of the empires that were profiled, in advance, in Daniel 2 and Daniel 7: the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires. However, many of us are probably a little hazy about the tide of events subsequent to that period. As Part 1 of a three-part article, we will attempt to briefly profile some of the historical events that are now impacting our near horizon.

The Rise of Islam

Many had assumed that Islam was simply the militant imposition of the culture of 7th century Arabia on illiterate Third World tribes, with little relevance to the developed nations of today. However, the events of September 11, 2001, certainly have punctured the comfort of those nave presumptions. Islam has been, from its inception, a militant warrior code with an agenda of world conquest. Now, with its possession of nuclear weapons, its agenda can no longer be ignored.

Mohammed was born at Mecca, Arabia, in a.d. 570, and his Islam quickly spread beyond the borders of the tribal groups of Arabia. The 7th century was startled with the rapid advances of his militant religion: Syria fell in 634; Jerusalem in 637; Egypt in 638; Persia in 640; North Africa in 689; and Spain in 711. Both Christians and Jews throughout Europe were terrified until the Islamic troops were halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours, France, in 732.

A Trifurcated Heritage

By 750, the Roman Empire in the West had already disintegrated into fragments, leaving two other primary protagonists: Byzantium, the Eastern remnants of the Roman Empire, and the emerging caliphates of Islam. Of these three heirs to an agrarian, rural-oriented world, the Islamic caliphates were the most prosperous, with thriving trade and a large merchant and professional class. Like the Byzantine emperors, the caliphs were strong, centralized rulers, with a well-organized civil service and efficient methods of collecting taxes. This centralization reached its height at the end of the 8th century under Harun al-Rashid, who was one of the most powerful of the caliphs. From his capital city at Baghdd (today the capital of Iraq), he ruled over lands that stretched more than 3,600 miles from east to west (about 1,000 miles longer than the length of the United States). He was a successful military leader and was enormously wealthy.

Byzantium's economy was hurt by war and loss of territory but quickly revived. Constantinople remained an important center of trade, and the Byzantine countryside was productive. Its imperial administration was able to collect taxes from peasants without difficulty.

The West was the poorest heir of the former Roman Empire. While a wealthy landowning class lived well, many cities of the West had become depopulated and the land was relatively unproductive. There were so many continuing conflicts among the numerous fragmented fiefdoms that it is rather surprising that by the end of the Middle Ages Europe emerged as a collection of strong, prosperous, aggressive competitive states, with explorers and traders launching expeditions to China, Africa, and, eventually, the Americas.

The Decline of Byzantium

The Byzantine Empire was the wedge that separated the Islamic world from the West and was in a vulnerable middle position. Although the Byzantines managed to survive the initial attacks of the Muslims, which began early in the 7th century, they always had to worry about new invasions - and not just from farther east. Hostility with the West had roots that ranged from disputed territory to religion. The pope resented Byzantine rule over the parts of Italy he thought should be his own. The pope and the Byzantine church also had long-standing religious differences concerning the nature of God and the organization of the church. These came to a head in 1054, when the agents of the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated one another.

Further enmities between Byzantium and the West developed at the end of the 11th century. At that time a new Islamic group, the Seljuk Turks, began to ravage the Byzantine Empire's eastern flank. The emperor asked for military help from the West, but he got more than he bargained for: The pope launched the First Crusade, a massive armed pilgrimage against the forces of Islam.

European fighters met with the emperor to coordinate strategy, but the two sides had very different interests. The Byzantines wanted to protect their own territory from Muslim invasion and saw the Crusaders only as reinforcements. The Crusaders, on the other hand, had a much larger goal - to recover from the Muslims Jerusalem and other cities Christians considered holy. The Europeans were interested in the Byzantines only if they could help the Crusaders achieve their goal. This conflict of interest increased hostility between the Byzantine Empire and the West.

On a later Crusade, in 1204, Crusaders from Europe invaded Constantinople itself, pillaging and destroying it. They set up one of their own leaders as emperor and divided up Byzantine territory among Europeans. Although the Byzantines recaptured the city in 1261, the empire never fully recovered. In 1453 it was taken over by the Ottoman Turks, another Muslim group that would prevail until World War I and which would set the stage for the cast of adversaries clouding our present horizon.

Islamic World 

The fate of the Islamic world was much different than that of the Byzantine Empire. There remains a direct continuity between the state ruled by the caliphs in the 7th century and the Islamic states of today. Yet almost directly after Harun al-Rashid's death in 809, the caliphs began to lose power to local rulers. This loss was the result of religious as well as military developments. After Mohammed's death in 632, important men in two different family groups claimed to be the true successor. The supporters of the family group that won and gained the caliphate became known later as Sunnites. The other group would become known as Shiites. The followers of these two groups continue to be a source of tension in the Islamic world today.

In the 10th century a group of Shiites calling themselves Fatimids gained control of a region that included what is now northern Africa, Egypt, and Syria. They ruled independently of any caliph at Baghdd and their hold was broken only with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks - the same Turks against whom the First Crusade was launched - who were Sunnites.

The caliphs also lost power because they could not control their armies. Most of the armies of the caliphs were made up of slaves who had been bought or captured and armed as soldiers. These slave armies had no loyalty to the caliphs. As a result, they soon became independent mercenaries, hiring themselves out to whichever ruler would pay them the most. Local governors in the Islamic world took advantage of this, collecting taxes and paying the armies what they asked in return for support. In this way, powerful local rulers carved out states for themselves.

The Seljuks

In the 12th century the Seljuk Turks put an end to this fragmentation by bringing order and stability to the various groups in power. They recognized the caliph but exercised influence over him. Similarly, they allowed independent kingdoms but expected them all to participate in an Islamic culture based on Sunnite beliefs and law and on the Arabic language.

The Seljuks also encouraged free and active trade throughout the Islamic world. Scholars and writers benefited from the resulting openness and prosperity, and important works of philosophy and literature were written in Arabic during this period. The works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, long forgotten, were recovered and translated from Greek into Arabic. This revival of Aristotle marked a major intellectual change, with important consequences both for the Islamic world and for the West: by the end of the 12th century, both cultures shared a common body of logical thought that served as the basis for new achievements in philosophy and science.

However, the Islamic world was under constant pressure from outside forces. In the 13th century, Seljuk rule in the eastern half of the Islamic world gave way to invaders from China, known as the Mongols. Other parts of the Islamic world were being conquered by Europeans. Islamic Spain, which had broken from the caliphs in the 8th century, was almost entirely taken by Christian armies by 1212. Sicily, occupied by the Muslims in the 9th century, was reconquered by Europeans in the 11th. Meanwhile, independent Islamic rulers continued to create and strengthen their own states. This situation persisted until the invasions in the 15th century by the Ottoman Turks, who unified much of the Islamic world under their rule.


Although the Byzantine Empire disappeared long ago, a descendant of it still exists in the modern world: Russia. Russia was created by Vikings from Scandinavia, who sailed down the river valleys that connected the Baltic with the Black Sea and conquered the Slavs living along the rivers. The Russians both traded and fought with the Byzantines. Eventually the Russians accepted Christianity from the Byzantines and adopted many of the empire's customs and institutions. Yet, to put this in perspective we will need to explore the Mongol (Magog?) Invasions of the 12th – 14th centuries. [To be continued next month with Part 2.]

This article has been excerpted from our current video and briefing pack, Roots of War – Profiling the Middle East.