To understand the development of the Islamic meme one must consider the character and the historical mission of its founder Muhammad. The Prophet was born in a pre-Islamic Arabia which, for many centuries exhibited a particular resistance to civilizing influences. Christianity was six centuries old and, after its slow absorption of the high civilizations at the center of the Roman Empire, spread with remarkable speed to the inhabitants of the Roman periphery. Then within one or two centuries, most of the barbarian invaders of the empire were converted to one form or another of Christianity. Even in the far off British isles the higher civilization of the Mediterranean world carried by the Christian religion spread, in a remarkably short time to the Celtic tribes beyond the Roman frontier and to the Saxon invaders of eastern Britain. Once the initial depredations of these tribes were exhausted, they showed a remarkable eagerness to engage the civilizing tutelage of wandering monks and formal missions. And within a few decades, these new converts carried Christian civilization deep into the forests of central Europe.
In Arabia, however, the Bedouin way of life resisted the civilizing influence of Mediterranean culture that had been carried for many centuries by wandering Christians as well as migrating Jewish refugees. This stands in stark contrast to the experience in far off Western Europe as well as neighboring Ethiopia just across the Red Sea. It was only in the isolated caravan cities and in more settled Yemen that the ideas of the higher religions penetrated; and even in these areas they were confined to a tiny fraction of the population.
The challenge facing Muhammad was to develop a religious ideology that would appeal to Arab sensibilities while enabling them to participate at the level of the higher civilizations that had surrounded them for millennia. To do so he had to fabricate a religion for Arabs that would transcend the parochialism of local tribes, satisfy their traits of individuality and notions of honor, conform to their code of morality and, at the same time, provide an outlet for channeling their aggressive tendencies. Indeed so successful was the Prophet in carrying out this program that “before his sudden death in 632, he knew he was well on the way to accomplishing his divine mission of unifying the Arab tribes under a theocracy governed by the will of the one and only God, Allah.” Although Muhammad may have had a more universal mission in the back of his mind, his fellow Arabs were the focus of his teachings and activities. The claim made that he “wrote to the rulers of other lands, including Heraclius, proposing that they accept Islam … is now recognized as a later invention without historical foundation.”
A number of religious models have developed in various regions. However, the major religions, while differing enormously in doctrine appear to fall into roughly two general types. The first type is that of the tribal/national religions, examples of which are Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Taoism and Confucianism. These sometimes start off as very primitive, violent and warlike creeds as evidenced in the Old Testament of Judaism and in the early Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana; which show the clashes of early tribal societies over the possession of land, water, or even livestock.
The second configuration, that of the proselytizing religions is comprised of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Both Buddhism and Christianity spread slowly and peacefully, at least initially. Both transcended their original national backgrounds almost from their beginning. Both, in fact, have virtually vanished in their respective lands of origin.
The solution Muhammad and his immediate successors developed in order to civilize the Arabs, Islam, is a combination of both a tribal and a proselytizing religion. This gave the new creed some unique advantages. Islam was able to spread rapidly over a vast territory through the sword. However, only long after its initial military success were large numbers of converts accepted into the faith. The territory of its original tribal people, Arabia, remains the most zealous stronghold of the faith.
As one historian observes regarding the benefits to primitive tribal peoples of the religion that was the ultimate outcome of Muhammad’s efforts:
More quickly than any other, the record suggests, it can inspire them with zeal, elevate their moral code, promote their self-respect, make them a disciplined community.
The violent and martial nature of Islam was present almost from its first days. And while these traits account for the extraordinary success of the faith, they developed as a contingent outcome of its prophet’s initial spiritual development; in fact the success of Islam was a consequence not of Muhammad’s more uplifting visions, but rather of his ultimate spiritual failings.
To begin with it may be observed that the other great missionary religions, Buddhism and Christianity developed out of existing tribal religions that had undergone many centuries of religious evolution and ethical development. These were mature religions long past their primitive foundations and they were embedded in refined and cosmopolitan societies that had experienced considerable cross-fertilization of ideas with other high cultures. Islam, on the contrary, had its incubation within a primitive pagan tribal culture. The founders of the other religions had very different backgrounds and these inevitably shaped the future course of their new religions. Jesus inherited all of Judaism's spiritual insights and was most likely in direct contact with esoteric sources of wisdom, possibly with the various Essene sects. Gautama was heir to a long tradition of Hindu religious development and had the advantage of studying with a number of Hindu adepts. Muhammad, however, although a man of great spiritual gifts, lacked the benefit of extensive personal contact with genuine existing religious teachings and teachers. He was also isolated in a remote backwater facing conditions similar to that of the early Hebrew prophets with which he shared a similar problem; that of civilizing and uniting a primitive and barbaric people.
The difficulties and the temptations facing the Prophet Muhammad were immense and the spiritual resources he could draw upon were sparse. As the great yogi Vivekananda observed:
The yogi says that there is a great danger in stumbling upon this state (the superconscious). In a good many cases there is the danger of the brain’s being deranged; and as a rule you will find that all those men, however great they were, who stumbled upon this superconscious state without understanding it groped in the dark and generally had, along with their knowledge, some quaint superstitions. They opened themselves to hallucinations. Mohammed claimed that the Angel Gabriel came to him in a cave one day and took him on the heavenly horse Harak to visit the heavens. But with all that, Mohammed spoke some wonderful truths. If you read the Koran, you will find the most wonderful truths mixed with superstitions. How will you explain it? The man was inspired, no doubt, but that inspiration was, as it were, stumbled upon. He was not a trained yogi and did not know the reason for what he was doing. Think of the good Mohammed did to the world and think of the great evil that has been done through his fanaticism! Think of the millions massacred through his teachings – mothers bereft of their children, children made orphans, whole countries destroyed, millions upon millions of people killed!
Therefore, it would be incorrect to simply dismiss Muhammad as a charlatan or a crank; one such could not have inspired a civilization and religious world outlook that would survive him by many centuries. But, in a sense Muhammad is an almost tragic figure; a man of great personal gifts and enormous spiritual energy who fell onto what some have termed the “left-hand path” or in more recent popular imagery the “dark side”. A deeper consideration of this is beyond the scope of this study but one student of these matters describes the phenomenon as follows:
Finally there is a minute group of exceptional individuals that uses a fuel so powerful it can only be compared to dynamite.
These rare individuals can exert very powerful effects on their fellow men. Depending on whether they use their power creatively or destructively, they can be for their fellows either a blessing or a curse.
The historian of religion Von Harnack refers to “diseases that only strike supermen who then draw from them new life never before suspected, energy that levels all hindrances in its path, and the zeal of the prophet or apostle.” Philosopher of religion Jacob Needleman, quoting a Jesuit scholar of Christian spirituality, emphasizes the serious consequences when such a spiritual superman falls into “sin”:
He went on to explain that … the traditional Christian teaching about mortal, or deadly, sin refers to a relatively developed individual. He enumerated the three characteristics of mortal sin: it must be of a serious nature; it must be done consciously with ‘full knowledge’; and it must be deliberate. … Inner psychospiritual discipline of any kind, certainly the reaching out for ‘mystical experience’ is an endeavor fraught with false directions – and a mistake in this sphere is of an immensely more serious nature than the usual so-called ‘sins’ or errors that we customarily suffer over in our everyday lives.
In addition it is surprising and, perhaps, significant that none of Muhammad’s followers and admirers made any attempt to whitewash the Prophet’s many shortcomings. “No other founder of a religion has been described from his human, indeed, all-too-human side without detriment to the idealized picture that people painted of him.” The full extent of Muhammad’s shortcomings, as derived from Islamic texts has been documented in numerous recent works. His participation in and encouragement of, or at least acquiescence in, slaughter, rape, plunder and assassination of critics; his Machiavellian political maneuvers and use of deceit and the frequent rationalizations accompanying the satisfaction of his numerous sensual whims, perhaps, characterize acceptable behavior of contemporary Bedouin chieftains. But they are certainly unworthy of a claimant to spiritual leadership. Historian Arthur Jeffery takes issue with the attempts by some modern scholars to whitewash the record of Muhammad’s activities. He regards
as ‘the sheerest sophistry’ attempts ...made in some circles in modern days to explain away all the Prophet’s warlike expeditions as defensive wars, or to interpret the doctrine of Jihad as merely a bloodless striving in missionary zeal for the spread of Islam…The early Arabic sources quite plainly and frankly describe the expeditions as military expeditions, and it would never have occurred to anyone at that day to interpret them as anything else…
It is, indeed, puzzling as to how the earnest, though perhaps annoying, Warner of Mecca metamorphosed into a bloody-minded and ruthless warlord. It is almost as if two different men went by the same name. During his Meccan period Muhammad acquired his knowledge slowly from various unorthodox sources:
His private thought during this period was quickened by persons … A cousin of Khadijah, the blind Waraqah … may have been a Christian, and although his information was apparently at many points misleading, Muhammad found him a useful source of knowledge concerning matters of faith and conduct. Less information was perhaps provided by a Christian slave boy called Zaid…
In Medina Muhammad had a great turnaround in fortune, and after a series of setbacks he achieved remarkable success. An important turning point occurred at the battle of Badr:
The triumph at Badr was one of the most decisive moments in Muhammad’s life. A new side of his personality came to the fore, and a new man was presented to the world … The simple preacher and warner of Mecca turned into a vengeful warlord…
After Muhammad’s victories “the attendant change of his personality did not escape the notice of his contemporaries.” And that change affected the nature of the revelations in the Koran. There is a “clear distinction between the two component parts” the revelations from Mecca and those written in Medina. As Noss observes:
In the Meccan period, Muhammad was a long suffering prophet who, under the influence of Jewish and Christian teaching, proclaimed on the one hand God’s purpose to bring the world to judgment, and on the other the wilful wickedness of man in rebellion against the will of God. … The latest suras imply that men have the freedom of obedience only, since Allah wills all, both good and bad. Allah is a being beyond all human questioning – the inscrutable determiner of men’s destinies, who acts according to divine ends which no man can clearly know … Allah appears in the latest revelations, to use R.E. Hume’s vivid characterization ‘like an Arab sheikh glorified and magnified to cosmic proportions.’
Furthermore, it is significant that the Muslim scriptures, not only regard Muhammad as the “perfect man”, but, in addition are devoid of any record that he struggled with temptation or was ever reprimanded by the Deity. This makes the Prophet very different from the prophets and other righteous figures from the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of tales of otherwise righteous kings yielding to temptations of various sorts and who are then condemned to divine punishment, of prophets condemned to suffering for attempting to evade their calling and righteous individuals inflicted with pain and sorrow as a test of faith. The greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Moses, was not permitted to enter the Holy Land because of the trespass he committed at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh. There is no record of any chastisement of Muhammad; on the contrary, Allah continually indulges all of His Messenger’s whims.
The founders of the other great proselytizing faiths had to undergo and overcome temptation as a preparation for their ministries, or as a completion of their missions. Thus, the devil taunts Jesus in an attempt to make him use his powers and offers him all of the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4.3 – 4.11). In the end Jesus must accept his death; a fate that he could easily have avoided. The temptation of worldly power, however, was too much for Muhammad. Similarly, Gautama the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi tree, was tempted by Mara, the Evil One who paraded before him three voluptuous female divinities and their tempting female attendants. Mara follows with threats of death and destruction. Lastly, Mara offers Gautama immediate entrance into Nirvana. The Buddha withstood all of these temptations and Mara was banished. The Buddha also willingly accepted his death by the “accidental” ingestion of poisoned food. However, the temptations of sex and personal gratification were not ones that Muhammad was able to resist. Finally, there was the example of Socrates, the great founder of the system of Greek philosophy that spread throughout the West and beyond. Socrates refused the means of escape that was offered to him and, like Jesus, elected to accept his execution in affirmation of his principles. Muhammad’s principles, on the other hand, appeared to be rather more elastic.
Nevertheless, Muhammad’s shortcomings did not prevent him from achieving considerable success in raising the level of civilization among the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The culture of the Arabs on the eve of Islam is described by the scholar of religious history Huston Smith as follows:
The world into which Muhammed was born is described … in a single word: barbaric. … Scarcity of material goods and a fighting mood chronically inflamed by the blazing sun had made brigandage a regional institution and a proof of virility. … Drunken orgies often ending in brawls and bloodshed were commonplace. The gaming impulse, always strong among nomads, was uncontrolled, with Meccan gambling tables busy the night through. Dancing girls moved from tent to tent inflaming the passions of the impetuous sons of the desert.
It is easily imagined how Muhammad, who in his early years in Mecca was strenuously and sincerely grappling with moral issues and religious concerns, regarded the behavior of his countrymen. There is no question that Muhammad
…was disturbed by the incessant quarreling in the avowed interests of religion and honor among the Quraysh chiefs. Stronger still was his dissatisfaction with the primitive survivals in Arabian religion, the idolatrous polytheism and animism, the immorality at religious convocations and fairs, the drinking, gambling and dancing which were fashionable and the burial alive of unwanted infant daughters…He must have been puzzled by the senseless bloodshed and inter tribal anarchy…
There can be no doubt of the extraordinary success of Muhammad’s mission to the Arabs. It was the “genius” of Muhammad and his early successors to channel the violence, avarice and lust of “the impetuous sons of the desert” into a force capable of conquering a vast empire in a remarkably short time. However, the Prophet’s success in improving the condition of his fellow Arabs and of introducing them to the benefits of higher civilization was purchased by the suffering inflicted on the neighboring peoples by these Arab conquerors; and with the consequent lowering of the high level of culture that the ancestors of the conquered had worked for millennia to attain.
The condition of women under Islam is a topic of contemporary concern and controversy. In this context a question that naturally arises is whether the new regime instituted by Muhammad resulted in an improvement in the situation of women. The condition of women in Arabia at that time was poor, and in all likelihood much worse than that in the neighboring territories:
In pre-Islamic ‘Days of Ignorance,’ marriage arrangements were so loose as to be scarcely recognizable. Conditional and temporary contracts were commonplace. Women were regarded as little more than chattel to be done with as their fathers or husbands pleased. Daughters had no inheritance rights and were often buried alive in their infancy.
In addition to a lack of legal rights and widespread female infanticide, marriage by capture was another common pre-Islamic Arab custom. Muhammad abolished this custom and instituted a whole series of reforms; the end result of which, however, was problematic according to Bernard Lewis:
In general, the advent of Islam brought an enormous improvement in the position of women in ancient Arabia, endowing them with property and some other rights, and giving them a measure of protection against ill treatment by husbands or owners. … But the position of women remained poor, and worsened when, in this as in so many other respects, the original message of Islam lost its impetus and was modified under the influence of pre-existing attitudes and customs.
Lewis does not take into account that the subsequent decline in the position of women was one of the ultimate implications of Islamic law, which did not immediately follow the initial revelations, but took some time to be fully worked out. Nonetheless these implications are fully contained in the earliest Muslim texts. In this very early period, some Arab women, whether Muhammad’s supporters like his first wife Khadija and the strong willed Aisha, or his female opponents in both Mecca and Medina, were still able to speak and act with a determination and fierceness that reflected the assertiveness of early Bedouin women; and this despite the many disabilities inflicted on them by Arab society. One such formidable woman was the acerbic wife of an early Meccan opponent of the Prophet:
The tenth-century Arab historian, al-Tabari’s account of Hind bint Otba, the wife of Abu Sufyan, the head of one of the aristocratic families of Mecca, gives a vivid picture of the independence of aristocratic women before Islam. Women swore allegiance as much as men, took part in negotiations with the new military chief of the city – that is, Muhammad himself – and were often frankly hostile to the new religion. When Muhammad arrived … Abu Sufyan finally led out a deputation to make a formal submission and swear allegiance. The women led by Hind gave theirs only very reluctantly. Hind reproached Muhammad for having imposed obligations on women that he had not imposed on men.
However, it does appear that Islam somewhat ameliorated the lot of women in Arabia proper, although at the cost of curbing the spirited and free behavior of some upper class Arab women prior to Muhammad’s rule. But there is no doubt that an even larger price for that improvement was the deterioration of the condition of a much vaster number of women in the various conquered territories. Consider the following as an example of the high status of women among the Iranian tribes of the central Asian steppes before the coming of Islam; such assertiveness of women was characteristic of many nomadic societies:
Of particular interest is the position of women in most Sarmatian tribes, but especially among the Sauromatians as described by Herodotus. … their wives kept to the ‘ancient Amazon mode of living, going out on horseback to hunt, and joining their husbands in war, wearing the same dress as men’. He also says that no virgin was permitted to marry until she had killed an enemy. … The relatively large number of graves of armed women … is usually looked upon as evidence of the survival of the ancient pre-Sauromatian social order based on a matriarchy. … Hippocrates maintained that Sarmatian women were not only warriors, but also priestesses.
In the provinces of the Byzantine Empire, another area overrun by the Arab forces in the first years of Islamic expansion, the population consisted primarily of various Christian sects. Under the Roman Empire before the advent of Christianity women participated in business, social life and athletics. In various parts of the empire, opportunities for women were increasing over time:
In Greece and Asia Minor, women participated with men in religious cults … While the leading roles were reserved for men, women took part in the services and professions. Some women took up education, the arts, and professions such as medicine. In Egypt, women had attained, by the first century A.D., a relatively advanced state of emancipation, socially, politically, and legally. In Rome, forms of education had changed around 200 B.C., to offer to some children from the aristocracy the same curriculum for girls as for boys. Two hundred years later … the archaic, patriarchal forms of Roman marriage were increasingly giving way to a new legal form in which the man and woman bound themselves to each other with voluntary and mutual vows.
While orthodox Christianity ultimately rolled back many of these gains, early Christianity “showed a remarkable openness toward women.” Some Christian sects went quite far in extending recognition to women. In fact among some “gnostic groups … women were considered equal to men; some were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops.” Even in later centuries after the position of women deteriorated under Christianity, their subjugation was never nearly as complete as it was to be with the Muslim conquest.
Thus, the expansion of Islam was everywhere, outside of Arabia proper, marked by a severe loss of social status and legal rights for women. And this oppression of women instituted by the teachings of Muhammad was certainly morally reprehensible. However as will be shown in a later chapter, Culture of the Harem, it was also a key to the remarkable success of the Muslim faith and one of the primary factors behind Islam’s enormous expansion. This fact, while implied by, is not usually explicitly stated in most historical narratives.
Muhammad brought the Arabian Peninsula under the rule of Islam. Immediately after the Prophet’s passing his successors brought the greater part of the Near East into a new Arab empire. The following chapter outlines the Arab campaigns and illuminates the patterns common to these first and to all subsequent Muslim conquests.
 Noss, Man’s Religions, p.729.
 A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, p. 211.
 Muller, The Loom of History, p. 298
 Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1955, p. 81.
 Robert S. De Ropp, Warrior’s Way, New York, Dell Publishing, 1979, p. 216.
 Adolf Von Harnack quoted in Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 5.
 Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity, New York, Bantam, 1982, pp.149-50.
 Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, p. 124.
 Andrew G. Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad in Palestine, FrontPageMagazine.com, December 7, 2004.
 Noss, Man’s Religions, pp. 722-23.
 Trifkovic, The Sword of the Prophet, p. 37.
 Ibid, p. 45.
 Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, p. 11.
 Noss, Man’s Religions, p. 731.
 Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, New York, Harper and Row, 1965, pp. 94-6.
 Ibid, p. 219.
 Noss, Man’s Religions, p. 721.
 Smith, The Religions of Man, p. 245.
 Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, p. 92.
 Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, New York, Touchstone, 1997, p. 210.
 Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1995, pp. 292-3.
 T. Sulimirski, The Sarmatians, New York, Praeger, 1970, pp. 33-4.
 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, New York, Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 74-5.
 Ibid, p. 73.
 Ibid, p. 72.