Of humble origins, Muhammad founded and promulgated one of the world's great religions, and became an immensely effective political leader. Today, thirteen centuries after his death, his influence is still powerful and pervasive.
The majority of the persons in this book had the advantage of being born and raised in centers of civilization, highly cultured or politically pivotal nations. Muhammad, however, was born in the year 570, in the city of Makkah, in southern Arabia, at that time a backward area of the world, far from the centers of trade, art, and learning. Orphaned at age six, he was reared in modest surroundings. Islamic tradition tells us that he was illiterate. His economic position improved when, at age twenty five, he married a wealthy widow. Nevertheless, as he approached forty, there was little outward indication that he was a remarkable person.
Most Arabs at that time were pagans, who believed in many gods. There were, however, in Makkah, 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 this one true God (Allah) 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, about 613, he began preaching in public. As he slowly gained converts, the Makkahn authorities came to consider him a dangerous nuisance. In 622, fearing for his safety, Muhammad fled to Madinah (a city some 200 miles north of Makkah), where he had been offered a position of considerable political power. This flight, called the Higra, was the turning point of the Prophet's life. In Makkah, he had had few followers. In Madinah, he had many more, and he soon acquired an influence that made him a virtual dictator. During the next few years, while Muhammad's following grew rapidly, a series of battles were fought between Madinah and Makkah. This war ended in 630 with Muhammad's triumphant return to Makkah as conqueror. The remaining two and one 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 of 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. (However, one should note that these were not offencive wars, limitation of time and space will not allow us to dwell onto a detailed analysis of these wars and conquests). To the northeast of Arabia lay the large Neo Persian Empire of the Sassanids; to the northwest lay the Byzantine, or Eastern 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 had 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. There they...