While Mohammed was just as opposed to idolatry as were the Biblical Prophets, he was much more inclusive than they were. As opposed to the Jews but in congruence with the Christians he welcomed anyone into the embraces of Islam. In contrast the Jews treated Arabs as the bastard children of Abraham, which excluded them from being the Chosen Ones.
In parallel fashion the worldly Arabs of the prosperous cities considered the Bedouins as primitive and uncultured – the common rivalry between city and country folk. Mohammed also included them in salvation and thus made them his unswerving allies. Further he was always honorable in his dealings with those around him, which also inspired deep loyalty. While offending the greedy due to the intensity of his convictions, Mohammed befriended the poor and noble at heart. The greedy, powerful forces, whether Arab, Christian, or Persian, couldn’t pay their mercenary armies enough to withstand the vision of Islam.
Another factor in the meteoric rise of Islam was military. Although Mohammed considered Jesus a great Biblical Prophet, as both included all believers in Biblical salvation, the Arabs, like the Norsemen, were uncomfortable with his pacifism. Unlike Jesus, Mohammed was a successful general as well as being a religious prophet. He fit the classic Jewish definition of Messiah. His early military victories were essential in establishing himself as a military Messiah in the Old Testament tradition - someone who would lead his followers to political victory on earth. None of this after-life business. With God or Allah, evidently behind him, all of Arab tribes fell quickly into line. The nomadic Bedouins were his most powerful warriors. Using the horse and camel they were able to attack and retreat quickly, maximizing enemy damage and minimizing their own. While independent and quarrelsome individually, unified they were invincible.
This is and has always been true. When the People stand together, they are invincible against the forces of Corruption. Unfortunately most of the time the people are corrupted too and so are very easy to manipulate. Indeed one of the myths propagated by the Establishment is that the People are Powerless in the face of Big. They minimize cases of the People standing up, and maximize cases of the People getting crushed. The rise of Islam was a case of the People standing up and sweeping across an enormous section of the planet. Unfortunately the Greedy and Powerful soon seized control of this People’s Movement, corrupting its initial purity.
Many factors contributed to Islam’s rapid rie as a major political and religuos force. We mentioned Mohammed’s attack on tribalism with their competing gods and agendas. However he embraced some important features of the Arab’s tribal culture. One was the egalitarian nature of the tribe, wher each membe was important, A second related feature was the care for each member of the tribe, whether poor or elderly. This manifested as the zakat – a required charity for the poor – 2.5% of any income beyond necessities. This teaching of Mohammed was truly unique, at least for a major religion. Besides providing some financial support for the poor, more importantly it established an attitude of concern for the greater society that was lacking in the other cultures of the day, then and now. This attitude appealed to the poor and benevolent everywhere and was one key to the dramatic success of Islam.
The religion of Islam spread quickly because of this attitude towards the poor as well as its superior military power. Many times the territory was conquered with little or no resistance. Due to widespread corruption in Christian Byzantium and the Persian Empire the Islamic armies were frequently regarded as liberators rather than conquerors. Both Persia and Spain were in this category. (Northwestern Europe was a notable exception.) The attitude of social generosity and inclusion is inspiring and worthy of the grand jihad, the holy war.
Another reason for the rapid spread of Islam was their tolerance of the other monotheistic religions. Judaism was exclusive and the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire was intolerant of any other religion. The religion was so universal in Byzantium that the Arabs to the south called their inhabitants ‘Christians’. (In contrast the Europeans to the West called them ‘Greeks’, and the Persians to their East ‘Romans’.) During the expansion of the Arabian Empire those belonging to the monotheistic religions were taxed more heavily but were allowed to coexist peacefully with equal rights alongside the Muslims.
In contrast to his tolerance for the monotheistic religions of the Book, Mohammed was intolerant of polytheism. It was acceptable to enslave or kill those who belonged to the polytheistic religions. Thus the Persians were acceptable because they believed in only one god, Zoroaster.
Another reason that Islam spread so rapidly had to do with their lack of class system. The nomadic Bedouins, like the Jews, had a fairly egalitarian society. Every member of the nomadic culture was necessary for survival in the harsh desert. The only requirement was participating in tribal culture, whether Islam or Judaism.
In contrast the Persian culture prior to Islam, was a typical hierarchical Bronze Age military culture. The Emperor and his soldiers were the elite of the society, with all other classes subservient to their needs. The classic struggles between the Persians and the Greeks outlined by Herodotus had much to do with the Greeks preserving their freedom from the domination of the Persian hierarchy. Similarly the populace of Persia with the assistance of the Arab conquerors were happy to eliminate their caste system, thereby opening up their society to all humans rather than just the military elite.
While Christianity had no inherent class system, they inherited the class system of the Roman Empire, which extended to the Byzantine Empire, with each person’s career determined by the father. Again there was no inherent class system in Latin Catholicism either. However the Germanic and Nordic tribes brought their caste system with them. Then the Pope attempted to turn Christianity into a theocracy, with the priestly class in charge.
The up side of the class system was that everyone knew their place and role in society. The down side of the class system was that the leaders considered themselves superior and subsequently more important than the ‘common’ man. This resulted in a lack of caring about their welfare. Islam reversed this.
This attitude must have been welcome relief for the weak and downtrodden of this ancient world. Finally someone cares about me. Further they even consider me equal. Although the military establishment of Islam quickly corrupted Islam’s compassionate attitude towards the poor, the attitude regularly resurfaces, because generosity to the poor is inherent to Mohammed’s teachings.
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