Review: Foltz's The Islamization of the Silk Road - Spread and Rise of Islam

The Islamization of the Silk Road

By Richard C. Foltz

"Convert or die" has been a conclusion many people immediately jump to once they think about the Islamic conquest of large swathes of North Africa and Southwest Asia. Of course, it's not true. This is one of many myths that Foltz dismisses in the selection The Islamization of the Silk Road.

Richard C. Foltz is a professor in the Department of Religion at Concordia University, Montréal, Canada, Foltz holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History from Harvard University. He also holds degrees in Persian literature and applied linguistics from the University of Utah. He has taught at Kuwait University, Brown University, Columbia University, and the University of Florida. Prior to entering academia he worked for several years in Europe as a musician, film critic, and travel writer. Foltz is founder-director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia.

Foltz's The Islamization of the Silk Road is a selection I would recommend for anybody to read. It certainly clears up a lot of misunderstandings about the history of Southwest Asia and North Africa. The Islamization of the Silk Road is part of Foltz's book, Religions of the Silk Road. If you need the PDF file for it, Browndeer offers it.

It begins by explaining the origins of Islam.
Sometime around 610 of the common era, Muhammad, who liked to spend time alone meditating in the mountains outside Mecca, began hearing voices during the course of these retreats. At first he began to doubt his own sanity, but Khadija persuaded him that these voices might be divine in nature and should be listened to. Gradually Muhammad came to believe he was receiving revelations from God, calling upon him to "rise and warn" his fellow Meccans that the time had come to mend their ways.
 There had been social injustice in Mecca before Muhammad.
Many of the revelations Muhammad received dealt with social injustice, which was clearly a problem in Mecca at that time. His message found a growing audience of sympathetic ears while it increasingly alienated the social classes who were the target of his criticism.
The other rich merchants in Mecca didn't like Muhammad's teachings and attempted to push him out. 
...the citizens of Yathrib, a town some two hundred twenty miles to the north of Mecca were involved in factional disputes they could not resolve. Hearing of Muhammad's reputation for fairness and piety, they invited him to come and arbitrate. He accepted...the Prophet of Islam...left his hometown in an event known to Muslims as the hijra, or migration, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
The Hijrah traveled from
Mecca to Yathrib (Medina)
Source: CF Lounge
Muhammad was able to solve Yathrib's problems and eventually renamed the town. Nowadays, most of us know Yathrib by its new name - Medina. In Medina, the Muslims were no longer persecuted; rather, they enjoyed a special status. Seeking to punish their former persecutors and enrich themselves, they went ahead and began launching:
...raids (razzia) on Meccan-bound caravans, at the same time enriching their own treasury while inflicting damage on their former persecutors. After several battles with the Meccans, the Muslims were able to negotiate the right to return to Mecca for the traditional Arabian pilgrimage to the sacred Ka'ba stone. By 628 Mecca was under Muslim control.
While this seemingly confirms theories that Foltz attempts to disprove (the convert or die idea, for example), such theories ignore historical background. Foltz goes on to explain and clarify what he meant earlier.
Raiding caravans was an established part of the economic life of Arabia. The only rule was that one couldn't raid clan members or groups with whom one had made a non-aggression pact. With the successes of the Muslims growing from year to year, eventually all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula sent emissaries to Muhammad in order to seek such pacts. Their professions of loyalty were described by later Muslim writers as "submission," which in Arabic is islam.
Still, that just means that it's understandable that the people of the Arabian Peninsula are Muslim. Why are people in Egypt Muslim, then? That's not in the Arabian Peninsula. Iran isn't, either. Pakistan isn't. North Africa isn't. The Levant and Iraq aren't, either.

Foltz is able to explain this too, though. Because the Arabs had to raid caravans for their economy, they had to raid somewhere. But they had non-aggression pacts with everyone who professed to be a Muslim - which meant all the Arabs. The only remaining solution to this problem was to launch raids on the two nations that bordered the Arabs - the Byzantines and Persians.

But why were they so successful?
Iranians, in the form of Medes, Achemenians, Parthians, and Sasanians, had been vying with Athenian, Seleucid, and Roman Greeks for hegemony in western Asia for over a millennium. By the seventh century both the Sasanian Persian and Byzantine Greek empires were exhausted and decadent. Neither treated their subject peoples in Mesopotamia, Syria, or Egypt with anything that could be called benevolence. In many locations townspeople threw open the gates to the Arabs and welcomed them as liberators. The Muslims were, in fact, no more foreign in most of the lands they conquered than had been the previous rulers, and at first they were less exploitative.
For much of history, Persians had been fighting with Greeks and Romans. The great Achaemenids, for example, continuously attempted to invade Greece. The Greco-Persian Seleucids fought with the Romans just as much as their nomadic conquerors, the Parthians, did. The final pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, the Sasanids, fought with the Byzantines with a fury that led both to destruction.

Take, for example, the last great king of the Sasanians, Khosrow II.

Khosrow's father had been assassinated, and one of Khosrow's generals began a rebellion against him. The Byzantines then stepped in and helped Khosrow out, so Khosrow then took back control of Persia. He was forced to give Armenia to the Byzantines, however.
Sasanid Dynasty at the beginning of
Khosrow's reign.
Source: Iranologie

Khosrow invaded the Byzantine Empire through Armenia and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The Byzantine forces there were weak, and the Persians overran it quickly. Khosrow quickly took control of central Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) until a peace treaty by the emperor Heraclius.

Khosrow invaded Mesopotamia a second time, going further into the Levant. He took Damascus in 613, Jerusalem in 614, and Chalcedon in 617. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius was able to fight back, taking back Armenia.
"The loss of Khosrow's prestige...[was] followed by revolution in the royal household. Khosrow was condemned to death and executed (628), and his youngest son and heir, Mardānshāh, was murdered before his eyes. His eldest son, Kavadh (Qobad) II, Shērōē, signed the peace." 
- Encyclopedia Britannica
Five years after Khosrow died, Muslim armies began their raiding and conquests. Considering how long the Byzantines and Persians had been fighting, it's no surprise that they were so exhausted. The Persians were quickly conquered by the Muslims, while the Byzantines only got to keep most of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

The Umayyad Caliphate, successor to Muhammad and the first caliphs, was an Arab-dominated empire that oppressed non-Arabs. Eventually, non-Arab Muslims revolted in Khorasan, one of the easternmost modern Iranian provinces under a Sunni Muslim (Arab or Persian is still uncertain). This formed the Abbasid Dynasty whose capital was in Baghdad. It relied heavily on Persian bureaucrats and was much more east-oriented than the Umayyad.

(By the way, everything I've said so far is only background)

Ultimately, there were three main factors in the Islamization of the Silk Road.
  1. Spread of Political Power

    Muslim armies conquered Persia and invaded Central Asia. After Abbasid armies achieved a win above the Chinese at the Battle of Talas (I had an alliteration going on there :D), Muslims were definitely the rulers in Central Asia.
  2. Trade

    Muslims controlled the western half of the Silk Road, so any goods from China would have to pass through Central Asia - but then to the Muslims. This was the second fact in urging Central Asians to convert to Islam.
  3. Charismatic Muslim preachers
There were three major incentives for people to convert to Islam, too.
  1. Patronage

    Anybody dependent on the government for support would likely be 'encouraged' to convert to the government's religion.
  2. Muslim domination of commercial activity

    If you're dealing only with people of a certain religion, it's possible that they would treat you better if you converted to their religion.
  3. Assimilation

    People would be raised in an increasingly Muslim environment, which would influence them to be more Muslim.
  4. Sufi Shaykhs

    Foltz explains: 
    "...Sufi shaykhs took it upon themselves to spread Islam to the remotest areas. Their influence stemmed largely from their personal charisma, which often made them authoritative sources for the religion..."

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