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Because it is now almost axiomatic for American school textbooks to whitewash all things Islamic (see here for example), it may be instructive to examine one of those aspects that are regularly distorted: the Muslim conquests.
Few events of history are so well documented and attested to as are these conquests, which commenced soon after the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad (632) and tapered off circa 750. Large swathes of the Old World—from the India in the east, to Spain in the west—were conquered and consolidated by the sword of Islam during this time, with more after (e.g., the Ottoman conquests).
By the standards of history, the reality of these conquests is unassailable, for history proper concerns itself with primary sources; and the Islamic conquests are thoroughly documented. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of primary source materials we rely on do not come from non-Muslims, who might be accused of bias. Rather, the foremost historians bequeathing to posterity thousands of pages of source materials documenting the Islamic conquests were not only Muslims themselves; they were—and still are—regarded by today’s Muslims as pious and trustworthy scholars (generically, the ulema).
Among the most authoritative books devoted to recounting the conquests are: Ibn Ishaq’s (d. 767) Sira (“Life of Muhammad”), the oldest biography of Muhammad; Waqidi’s (d. circa. 820) Maghazi (“Military Campaigns [of the Prophet]”); Baladhuri’s (d. 892) Futuh al-Buldan (“Conquests of the Nations”); and Tabari’s (d.923) multi-volumeTarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, (“History of Prophets and Kings”), which is 40 volumes in the English translation.
Taken together, these accounts (which are primarily based on older accounts—oral and written—tracing back to Muhammad and his successors) provide what was once, and in the Muslim world still is, a famous story: that Allah had perfected religion (Islam) for all humanity; that he commanded his final prophet (Muhammad) and community (Muslims) to spread Islam to the world; and that the latter was/is to accept it either willingly or unwillingly (jihad).
It should be noted that contemporary non-Muslim accounts further validate the facts of the conquests. The writings of the Christian bishop of Jerusalem Sophronius (d.638), for instance, or the chronicles of the Byzantine historian Theophanes (d.758), to name a couple, make clear that Muslims conquered much of what is today called the “Muslim world.”
According to the Muslim historical tradition, the majority of non-Muslim peoples of the Old World, not desiring to submit to Islam or its laws (Sharia), fought back, though most were eventually defeated and subsumed.
The first major conquest, renowned for its brutality, occurred in Arabia itself, immediately after Muhammad’s death in 632. Many tribes which had only nominally accepted Islam’s authority, upon Muhammad’s death, figured they could break away; however, Muhammad’s successor and first caliph, or successor, Abu Bakr, would have none of that, and proclaimed a jihad against these apostates, known in Arabic as the “Ridda Wars” (or Apostasy Wars). According to the aforementioned historians, tens of thousands of Arabs were put to the sword until their tribes re-submitted to Islam.
The Ridda Wars ended around 634. To keep the Arab Muslims from quarreling, the next caliph, Omar, launched the Muslim conquests: Syria was conquered around 636, Egypt 641, Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire, 650. By the early 8th century, all of north Africa and Spain to the west, and the lands of central Asia and India to the east, were also brought under Islamic suzerainty.
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