Pre-Islamic Geopolitical Backdrop
Given the modern phenomenon of extremist violence and terrorism, there are some political activists and media commentators who associate such violence with verse in the Holy Qur’an and the martial activity during the times of Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) and his followers who defeated the super-powers of Eastern Rome and Persia and raised a great empire.
This article explores historical academia on the geopolitical and martial activity of early Islam to illustrate that this context, unlike religious extremism today, was fully justified and essentially has no justification for religious enforcement and violence.
Critics (and extremists) often pluck verses from the Holy Quran that address war, and draw an ahistorical conclusion devoid of context and backdrop feeding the extremist and Islamophobic narrative. In fact, as historical references show, the early Muslim empire was exemplary in its policy of freedom of religious expression.
In order to fully contextualize this narrative, it is important to cover the backdrop of the Roman-Persian conflict that was ablaze at the birth of Islam.
The genesis of the protracted warfare between two of the greatest empires of antiquity— Rome and Persia— that ultimately was put to an end with the rise of the Islam, was deeply ingrained in religious identity and supremacy— victory belonged to the followers of the true God(s) or religion. The Persian religious identity of antiquity had been Zoroastrianism based on the prophet Zoroaster who lived around 1,000 BC. The rise of the Sassanian Dynasty some 1,200 years later in the 2nd century after Christ saw a reassertion of Zoroastrianism to redraw a sense of the great Persian identity and face the challenge of Roman expansion. But this happened at the expense of persecution and intolerance of other religions, particularly the Christian East which had been developing in Asia-minor long before Roman emperor Constantine gave rise to Roman Christianity.
Dr. Peter Frankopan, Director of Byzantine research at Oxford, writes about the Persian empire in his international best seller ‘The Silk Roads’: After taking power in 224 AD, Ardashir I and his successor (Shahpur I) embarked on a full-scale transformation of the state. It involved the assertion of a strident identity that sought to accentuate links with the great Persian Empire of antiquity. The rise of the new dynasty soon brought about a stiffening of attitudes, and the teachings of Zoroaster were promoted at the expense of other ideas. The expansion of the Persian state was accompanied by a stern enforcement of values and beliefs presented as both traditional and essential for political and military success. Among those singled out for harsh treatment were the ‘Nasraye’ and ‘Kristyone’ (Nazarenes and Christians).
While Persia reasserted its religious identity, Rome was about to execute an even more ambitious state-administered religious orientation that must be one of the most remarkable social transformations in history. In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine, embattled in a civil war, saw a vision in the sky of a cross along with the words “by this sign you will conquer” before defeating his rival in battle and subsequently consolidating power. Deeply convinced of the vision he saw, Constantine embarked on a zealous Christianization of the Roman Empire building a grand new city and center of the Roman Empire dedicated to Christianity and named after himself—Constantinople, located east of Rome and directly facing the Persian Empire.
This grand build-up of what came to be known as Christendom unfortunately came with a suppression of other religions and ideas— even Roman traditions, and even Christians who didn’t conform to Roman-Christian theology (The Nicaean Creed). Constantine then proclaimed himself as the protector of Christians everywhere. In a letter to Persian King Shahpur II he writes: I commend these persons (Christians) to you for protection, for by this proof of faith you will secure an immeasurable benefit to yourself and us. The words were apparently taken as a threat, especially with Roman frontier posturing and incursions into Persian territory.
Persian ruler Shahpur II proceeded to unleash hell on local Christians as reprisal for Constantine’s aggression, egged on by Zoroastrian clergy. Per Dr. Frankopan: one manuscript from Edessa at the start of the 5th century records the execution of sixteen bishops and fifty priests in this period. Christians were now regarded as an advance guard, a fifth column that would open Persia to the Roman Empire.
This conflict of religious aggression and supremacy between the two super powers began roughly 200 years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD when it would reach its climax and conclusion.
Rome vs Persia at the Birth of Islam
Historians have marveled at how the dramatic turns of the Roman-Persian war, in the era of the rise of Islam, is incredibly predicted by Holy Qur’an verses 30:3-5: The Romans have been defeated in the land nearby, and they after their defeat will be victorious, in a few years…
The Persian badgering of Rome (besieged by internal dissent and discord) began around 600 CE by knocking out Dara, a vital point in the Roman defensive system in northern Mesopotamia. With Persia emboldened and Rome buckling under internal revolts, the scales tipped heavily in favor of the Persians— Cities in Mesopotamia fell like dominoes with Edessa capitulating in 605…then the great city of Antioch in Syria fell in 610 followed by Emesa and then Damascus itself in 613. Egypt, too, would fall later. Things got worse: after defeating a Roman counter-attack in Asia-minor the Shah’s armies turned east toward Jerusalem—the prize, heart and soul of Christendom. The aim was obvious: capture the most holy city in Christendom and, in doing so, assert the cultural and religious triumph of Persia. (The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan).
When Jerusalem fell in 614, the Christian world fell into utter shock and hysteria. The True Cross, Christianity’s greatest symbol at the time, was taken down and carried off to Persia. The humiliation was complete— Khusraw (Persian ruler) wanted to see him (Heraclius) brought in chains to the foot of his throne and was not prepared to give him peace until he abjured his crucified god and embraced the worship of the sun (Historian’s History of the World).
Persian armies were camped within visual distance of Constantinople. The world considered this as the defeat of Rome (and Roman Christianity).
However, just as the Holy Qur’an predicted in verse 30:3-5, it would take a few years before the dramatic reversal of fortune began in favor of the Romans.
Repeated attempts to breach Constantinople failed and the Persian commitment began to sag. Heraclius, in an astonishing counter-attack, tore after the retreating army before moving south and crushing a large Persian army near Nineveh. Bad became worse for the Persians: Khusraw (Persian ruler) was murdered and a senior general in the Persian army made a bid for the throne while dealing with Heraclius conceding territory and offering settlements. The Persian leadership fell into disarray and lost most of their gains back to Rome.
Unfortunately, Roman triumph was no better for religious freedom. Soon, reprisals and scapegoating began blaming minorities for the bid to hand Rome over to Persia. Heraclius himself had Jews baptized by force (those who refused had to flee) as payback for the role they were thought to have played in the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians. Eastern Christians, who had long-standing doctrinal conflicts with Romans, were also required to sign up for the Nicaean creed. This grand theater of war between two super-powers of the time, underwritten by claims of religious supremacy, naturally spilled into the bordering Arabian Peninsula.
According to Dr. Frankopan- the region (Arabia) had been all but untouched by the fighting between the Romans and Persians. In fact, the southwest heel of Arabia had long been a crucible of confrontation between Rome and Persia, where less than a century earlier the kingdom of Himyar and the cities of Mecca and Medina had thrown in their lot with Persia against the Christian coalition and Himyar’s deadly Red Sea rival, Ethiopia.
In this backdrop, the rise of Islam in the 7th century would ultimately break up the Roman-Persian geopolitical order and bring about a much needed religious and social correction that led Bernard Lewis, Peter Frankopan, William Montgomery and other historians to term the event a ‘revolution’.
When Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) began proselytizing Islam in Mecca, he faced opposition and persecution from the authorities who hosted a lucrative socio-economic platform based on idolatry and pilgrimage. Over a period of thirteen years, the persecution intensified and Muslims were ultimately compelled to migrate. Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) received an invitation to serve as chief arbitrator of the feuding city of Medina and its multiple Jewish and polytheist tribes. Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) was a believer in the Biblical prophets and a monotheist (like the Jews in Medina) yet he was raised in a polytheist society making him well acquainted with the various tribes and communities in Medina, and thus ideal for the leadership position. Given the trust and privilege placed in him, Muhammad’s immediate task at Medina was to forge a cohesive set of agreements and accords that would bring the city’s feuding tribes onto a common and functional platform of governance.
The Muslims were highly successful in establishing governance and a thriving abode at Medina, but it drew the ire and military retaliation of the Meccans and other opponents of the Islamic revolution. After three battles between Muslims and the Meccans, a short-lived peace treaty, and the subsequent conquest of Mecca by the Muslims, followed a period of rapid Muslim expansion that tore into the Roman-Persian geopolitical order. As Dr Frankopan notes: central to this new identity was a strong idea about unity. Muhammad actively sought to fuse the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single block. The Romans and Persians had long manipulated local rivalries and played leaders off each other.
Historian Dr. Frankopan further notes: although the material for the early Islamic history is complicated, an unmistakable and striking theme can be consistently teased from the literature of this period. Muhammad and his followers went to great lengths to assuage the fears of Jews and Christians.
This is consistent with verse 22:40 of the Holy Qur’an which permits armed military engagement for self-defense and to protect freedom of religion– Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made… who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’…. And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated.
This can be historically established by surviving non-Islamic documents known as “Covenants with the Christians”, assuring Christians the right to practice religion freely. The Muslims were keen to overturn the religious tyranny and oppression produced by the Roman-Persian wars and assure their new citizenry that victory by Muslims was not viewed as a matter of religious supremacy, but to battle oppression and intolerance.
Jonathan Conant’s historical review— Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and Mediterranean— outlines the fact that new churches were built in North Africa, Egypt and Palestine during this period suggesting the new rulers saw religious pluralism as the norm. Nile Green, in his book The Survival of Zoroastrianism in Yazd (Iran), echoes a similar theme in the conquest of Persia. When the Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem, Roman Emperor Heraclius’s restrictions on Jews and Eastern Christians were abolished.
In fact, Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) has been debated in Jewish writings as the messianic fulfillment of prophecy who delivered the Jewish people from the tyranny of Rome— they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens (Arabs), and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ that was to come (Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam—translation by R Hoyland, Princeton 1997).
A remarkable text from the time reports on how Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai, grief-stricken by Roman Emperor Heraclius’s persecution of Jews, received a vision in which an angel reassures him: Fear not, for God is bringing about the kingdom of Arabs for the purpose of delivering you from the wickedness of Rome. Per Dr. Frankopan, recent research on Greek, Syriac and Arab sources provides corroborating evidence that Jews welcomed Muslim rule, which is unlikely if the early Muslims were oppressors enforcing religion like the extremists do today.
Large portions of Rome-Byzantine and Persian territory were quickly conquered by the early Muslims putting an end to a centuries-old bitter war. Still, over the vicissitudes of time and power-politics, Muslim empires and kingdoms too would suffer the psychological plague of religious supremacy leading to intolerance of others, that has morphed into the quagmire of extremism that we see today. What appears to be clear from robust historical record is that the original Islamic development is far removed from the extremist narrative and attacks by certain media-commentators, who purport that terrorists and extremist violence is inspired by original Islamic events. In fact, it is wholly antithetical to the ideals of the early Muslims.