The history of the Middle East and the Levant since the rise of Islam has been complex, controversial, and bloody. Nevertheless, this region of the world has a unique distinction: Within its borders are the sacred lands shared by the world’s great religions; it lies at the crossroads of historical trade-routes, it has become the cultural melting pot of dozens of peoples; and finally, its political history has always been that of submission to larger imperial powers that have ruled its populace for the past 4,000 years.
But its history since 632AD has been equally fascinating. The saga begins with Christian lands (having been established 500 years earlier) being overrun, both militarily and culturally, by Islamic forces from nearby Arabia in less than 18 months! The declining Roman and Byzantine empires were completely unprepared for the blitzkrieg-like expansion that toppled this part of the Christian world with such speed. Muslim rule and expansion continued some 350 years, until the weaker Byzantine empire called on the Pope for defense against encroaching Islamic rule. The Pope’s response started the Crusades, which continued from the 10th through 12th centuries, with the Muslims finally prevailing by 1300. Several hundred years later, the then current Islamic ruling group – the Ottoman Empire – was dismantled by Renaissance European powers. These new masters further partitioned the land and re-established the Jewish state of Israel in the Levant. Thus, the most recent cycle of violence, terror, and political unrest we see today can arguably be dated from 1948.
- 632 – Muhammad’s Death: The prophet dies from illness at 60 years of age. His father-in-law Abu Bakr, succeeds him. Abu Baker becomes the first of four “rightly guided Caliphs”.
- 634 – The Ridda Wars of Apostasy: As much as half of Muhammad’s followers disband after his death. In response, Abu Bakr consolidates power by waging war on those tribes who wavered in support of Islam. This swift action effectively brings the entire Arabian peninsula under Islamic control. Abu Bakr dies in 634, but not before he orders his experienced military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid to advance on Persia and the Levant.
- 636 – The Fall of the Levant: Flush from success in Arabia and Persia, Khalid used superior military strategy to decisively defeat the Byzantine army near the Yarmouk River area (present day Syria/Jordan/Israel). This ended Roman rule in the Levant and heralded the Muslim advance through the rest of the Middle East. See here and here for more detail on the fall of “al-Sham” (the Levant).
- 636 – The Fall of Iraq: The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, fought in November 636, was a decisive battle between the Arab Muslim army and the Sassanid Persian army. It resulted in the Islamic conquest of Persia and was key to the conquest of Iraq, which was a Persian territory at that time.
- 651 – The Fall of Persia: Starting in 633, the Muslims advanced against the Sasanian Empire of Persia. Sieges and battles continued until 651, when most of Persia had been conquered by Umar ibn al-Khattab, the third Caliph.
Additional Context on the Rashidun Caliphate
Umar improved administration of the fledgling empire, ordering improvement of irrigation networks and playing a role in foundation of cities like Basra. To be close to the poor, he lived in a simple mud hut without doors and walked the streets every evening. After consulting with the poor, Umar established the Bayt al-mal, a welfare institution for the Muslim and non-Muslim poor, needy, elderly, orphans, widows, and the disabled. The Bayt al-mal ran for hundreds of years under the Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century and continued through the Umayyad period and well into the Abbasid era. Umar also introduced child benefit for the children and pensions for the elderly. When he felt that a governor or a commander was becoming attracted to wealth or did not meet the required administrative standards, he had him removed from his position. The expansion was partially halted between 638–639 during the years of great famine and plague in Arabia and Levant, respectively, but by the end of Umar’s reign, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and much of Persia were incorporated into the Islamic State.
Local populations of Jews and indigenous Christians, who lived as religious minorities and were taxed (while Muslims paid “Zakat”) to finance the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars, often aided Muslims to take over their lands from the Byzantines and Persians, resulting in exceptionally speedy conquests. As new areas were conquered, they also benefited from free trade with other areas of the growing Islamic state, where, to encourage commerce, taxes were applied to wealth rather than trade.The Muslims paid Zakat on their wealth for the benefit of the poor. Since the Constitution of Medina, drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the Jews and the Christians continued to use their own laws and had their own judges. To assist in the quick expansion of the state, the Byzantine and the Persian tax collection systems were maintained and the people paid a poll tax lower than the one imposed under the Byzantines and the Persians.
In 639, Muawiyah I was appointed as the governor of Syria after the previous governor died in a plague along with 25,000 other people. To stop the Byzantine harassment from the sea during the Arab–Byzantine wars, in 649 Muawiyah I set up a navy, manned by Monophysitise Christians, Copts and Jacobite Syrian Christians sailors and Muslim troops, which defeated the Byzantine navy at the Battle of the Masts in 655, opening up the Mediterranean to Muslim ships.
Early Muslim armies stayed in encampments away from cities because Umar feared that they may get attracted to wealth and luxury, moving away from the worship of God, accumulating wealth and establishing dynasties. Staying in these encampments away from the cities also ensured that there was no stress on the local populations which could remain autonomous. Some of these encampments later grew into cities like Basra and Kufa in Iraq and Fustat in Egypt. (Wikipedia)