Fruits for the Week

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My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world's most influential persons may surprise some readers and be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels.

Of humble origins, Muhammad founded and promulgated one of the world's great religions, and became immensely effective political leader. Today, his influence is still powerful and pervasive.

The majority of the persons in his book had the advantage of being born and raised in centers of civilization, highly cultures or politically pivotal nations. Muhammad, however, was born in the year 570, in the city of Mecca, in southern Arabia, at the time of backward area of the world, far from the centers of trade, art, and learning. Orphaned at the age of six, he was reared in modest surroundings. Islamic tradition tells us that he was illiterate. His economic position improved when, at the age of twenty-five, he married a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, as he approached forty, there was little outward indication that he was a remarkable person.

Most Arab at that time were pagans, who believed in many gods. There were however, in Mecca a small number of Jews and Christians; it was from them no doubt that Muhammad first learned of a single Omnipotent God who ruled the entire universe. When he was forty years old, Muhammad became convinced that his one true God was speaking to him, and had chosen him to spread the true faith.

For three years, Muhammad preached only to close friends and associates. Then, around 613, he began preaching in public. As he slowly gained converts, the Meccan authorities came to consider him a dangerous nuisance. In 622, fearing for his safety, Muhammad fled to Medina, where he had been offered a position of considerable political power.

The flight, called the Hijra, was the turning point of the Prophet's life. In Mecca, he had a few followers. In Medina, he had many more. During the next few years, while Muhammad's followers grew rapidly, a series of battles were fought between Medina and Mecca. This war ended in 630 with Muhammad's triumphant return to Mecca as conqueror. The remaining two and a half years of his life witnessed the rapid conversion of the Arab tribes to the new religion. When Muhammad died in 632, he was the effective ruler of all southern Arabia.

The Bedouin tribesmen of Arabia had a reputation as fierce warriors. But their number was small; and plagued by disunity and internecine warfare, they had been no match for the larger armies of the kingdoms in the settled agricultural areas to the North. However, unified by Muhammad for the first time in history, and inspired by their fervent belief in the one true God, these small Arab armies now embarked upon one of the most astonishing series of conquests in human history. To the northeast of Arabia lay the large Neo-Persian Empire of the Sassanid’s; to the northwest lay the Byzantine, or Easter Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople. Numerically, the Arabs were no match for their opponents. On the field of battle, though, the inspired Arabs rapidly conquered all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. By 642, Egypt has been wrested from the Byzantine Empire, while the Persian armies had been crushed at the key battles of Qadisiya in 637, and Nehavend in 642.

But, even these enormous conquests – which were made under the leadership of Muhammad's close friends and immediate successors, Abu Bakr, and Umar ibn Al-Khattab – did not mark the end of the Arab advance. By 711, the Arab armies had swept completely across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. These they turned north and, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, overwhelmed the Visigothic kingdom in Spain.

For a while, it must have seemed that the Muslims would overwhelm all of Christian Europe. However, in 732, at the famous Battle Tours, a Muslim army, which had advanced into the center of France, was at least defeated by the Franks. Nevertheless, in a scant century of fighting, these Bedouin tribesmen, inspired by the word of the Prophet, had carved out an empire stretching from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean- the largest empire that the world had yet seen. And everywhere that the armies conquered, large scale conversion to the new faith eventually followed.

Now, not all of these conquests proved permanent. The Persians, though they have remained faithful to the religion of the Prophet, have seen regained their independence from the Arabs. And in Spain, more than seven centuries of warfare finally resulted in the Christians reconquering the entire peninsula. However, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two cradles of ancient civilization, have remained Arab, as has the entire coast of North Africa. The new religion, of course, continued to spread, in the intervening centuries, far beyond the borders of the original Moslem conquests.

(to be continued)

by Michael H. Hart

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