The astounding success of Islam as both a state and religion in Arabia in the 7th century is interesting to analyse by itself and especially so if it we are going to assign the term “inevitable” or not. For the purposes of this post, “inevitable” implies that no other action from any of the relevant powers could have prevented Islam from its rise to power in this region. In order to judge whether this was the case this post will first look at why any similar religion could have taken hold and then move onto exactly how Islam was suited to the situation it found itself in. The latter point will conclude that Islam’s success in Arabia was inevitable through the situation it inherited (typicalist basis) and through Muhammad’s, specifically, strong interaction with a prophetic tradition as well as the Qur’an (exceptionalist basis).
The first thing to analyse is the serious power hole that had developed within the region. The Byzantine and Sasanian empires had very little motivation to control Arabia even at the best of times so after prolonged war had devastated both nations they did not have the resources or inclination to exert any form of power there. Sells points out that this “region [was] considered a no-man’s land by the leaders of the great empires of the day (Roman, Persian, and Ethiopian)” directly after describing the gradual growth of Islam from a “small circle” to a “major world religion and an international civilization”, clearly implying the importance of the former (6). Under the evangelistic and intolerant rule of Byzantium the fragile flowering of Islam might not have happened. While other rulers such as the Sasanians may have proven more tolerant it is important to note that closer connections to another civilization would have brought a stronger presence of the majority religions which would result in to persecution of minorities that could have halted Islam’s growth. This means that despite the “bitter rivalry and feuds” of the “ten clans of pagans” around Yathrib/Medina that existed, it was not on the level of state sponsored religious indoctrination and expulsion (35 Donner).
Without likening it too much to an economic market for religion, there was a demand for something that wasn’t present in the spiritual environment at the time. This is evidenced by the presence of the Hanifs who sought “the religion of Abraham” or Hanifiyya. While not large in number, this small group helped to form the nucleus of Islam as it developed under Muhammad. This was strengthened by the strong prophetic tradition throughout the region with examples like “The Story and Bahira” showing the power and standing Muhammed was able to garner through long held beliefs about a messenger arriving (79,80 Cumberledge). The receptive environment was cultivated by the “prophetic utterances of pre-Islamic seers (khins) and especially with the poets (sh’irs) of Arabia” (7 Sells)
Combining these two together, a religion that claimed to be descendant of Abraham would not only have an easier time finding a following to start but would operate in the favorable conditions of no imperial constrains. The issue of other clans fighting could almost be seen as an advantage too because conquering/converting smaller groups to expand would prove much easier than the united front of an organised state. The next point will analyse why Islam was particularly suited to excel in this situation.
In order to be advantaged by the prophetic tradition and galvanise the masses to follow, Islam needed a leader. Muhammad served Islam exceedingly well on both accounts. As mentioned before, his interaction with the religious seers granted him a religious authority that strengthened his position as humble messenger who developed the “Qur’an as direct revelation” from God (15 Sells). His existence allowed for the unaltered word of God to form the Qur’an which gave it an appeal and power at the heart of Islam. Yet while he remained a “servant to whom revelation has come”, his role certainly extended further than simply scribing God’s word (24 Schimmel). His powerful “blending of religion and politics” that came from an obligation to “use worldly means to propagate the message” united people under his teachings. The fact that almost every aspect of his life has been held onto dearly by the Muslim world through the collections of hadiths chronicling his sunna and outward beauty speaks to the extraordinary (and exceptionalistic) role that Muhammad played in the traditions of Islam.
Any understanding of Islam must place the prophet as subordinate to the Qur’an and it is truly this work that binds the Muslim world together and allowed for it to occupy “from what is now Spain to Afghanistan” without losing its core identity (6 Sells). Forming the core of Islamic social, religious, and historical beliefs it provides an “Islamic way of life, shari’a” that has survived through to modern times. The content and style itself provides an experience which many learn from childhood to fully understand and appreciate the “combination of majesty and intimacy that makes the Qur’anic voice distinctive” (3 Sells). Apparently English is insufficient in replicating this which speaks to a compelling and unique experience that Muslims undergo when studying this text. Indeed the miracle Muhammad is able to claim when demanded to verify his connection with God is the Qur’anic verse that none could replicate. Such an incomparable work provides not only the glue to hold a society together with rules but the credence for people to follow it.
When we look at these factors it seems inevitable that Muhammad would lead Islam into the rise it undertook in 7th century Arabia through both an opportunity present and the unique efforts of its book and prophet.
Annemarie Schimmel. And Muhammad Is His Messenger. The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill and London. 1985. 10-51
Michael Sells. Approaching The Qur’an. White Cloud Press. 1-81
Geoffrey Cumberlege. The Life of Muhammad. Oxford University Press. 1955. 79-683
C.C. Held. Patterns of Peoples and Culture. Westview Press. 1989. 84-94.