From the desert to Baghdad: the spread of Islam and Arabic

You have probably already come across Arabic in spoken or written form. You may likely even recognise the letters, but what they mean exactly may be a mystery to you. Arabic is the official language in more than twenty countries, from North Africa to the Middle East, and it is today one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. The language is also inextricably linked to Islam as it is the language of the Qur’an and it is also considered to be the “mother tongue of the Islamic world.” But how did the religion and the language actually grow so large? Join us as we go on a journey through history to discover how the Arabic language and Islam have spread so widely.

East west, side best

About 2,500 years ago, long before the emergence of Islam, the Persians ruled an area that stretched from Egypt to part of the Himalayas. A road network of approximately 1,500 miles (2,500 km) was developed, which linked the Mediterranean to central Asia, to establish thriving trade throughout the vast empire. This route was also known as the “Royal Road” by the ancient Greeks.

When the Alexander the Great ascended the throne as a young man in 336 BC, he already had his eyes set on the East. In the span of about ten years, he conquered much of the Persian Empire before he died at a young age. In the centuries that followed, the Romans managed to gain a greater foothold in what is today known as the Middle East. In China, too, there was an increasing urge to expand the empire after the rise of the Han dynasty in 206 BC. When the emperor learnt that there was great interest in Chinese silk in the Roman Empire, he made every effort to establish a route to the west.

Indirect cooperation created a route of about 8,000 kilometres that connected the Mediterranean and the Middle East with China and the Far East. Not only was merchandise traded via this ‘bridge’, but religions were spread too. Christianity and Buddhism, as well as smaller religions were introduced to other places through the Silk Road. A troubled period followed, however, when many people died in the Roman Empire and Central Asia as a result of the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century. The Roman Empire fell into an economic depression. The re-emerging Persian Empire took advantage of this by starting a war against the Romans.

From trader to prophet

During this period, at the beginning of the seventh century, the merchant Muhammad received the first revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel hundreds of miles away. When he then, by order of Allah, tried to spread these revelations across the Arabian Peninsula as a prophet, Mohammed initially encountered considerable resistance from other tribes and population groups. However, as the economic situation in the Arabian Peninsula became increasingly strained as a result of the Roman-Persian War, more and more people converted to Islam.

The support of the local population also played an important role in the spread of the religion and the expansion of the Islamic empire. The Persian cities and even a number of Christian cities that fell to the hands of Muhammad’s followers only wanted security and they capitulated as soon as the conquerors guaranteed it. As a result, the Muslims were able to expand their empire and spread their religion relatively easily and with minimal resistance. The Muslims also managed to capture cities and territories from the Roman Empire. In doing so, they liberated the Jews living there under the Roman yoke and the oppression that came with that. This caused them to support the Muslims in the expansion of the Islamic empire, which was gradually taking shape.

A brewing storm

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, a struggle also emerged within Islam, however, as Muhammad’s followers disagreed over who should succeed the prophet. This disagreement caused a split within the religion. According to the Shiites, Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and one of his first converts, was his rightful successor. The Sunnis did not look for their new leader from among Mohammed’s immediate family, however, but from among his close friends and followers.

This internal struggle within Islam led to a hardening of attitudes towards non-Muslims, which also ended the religious tolerance that Islam had shown towards Christianity and Judaism until then. The focus shifted more towards converting the local population, which was accompanied by an increasingly hostile attitude. It was not until this period that the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad were written down in the book we know today as the Qur’an, which was derived from the Arabic verb for “to read” or “to recite”.

A growing understanding

Despite the furious struggle in the heart of the Muslim world, the urge for expansion was unstoppable. The Muslims ventured in all directions through the trade routes and communication routes established by previous: to Egypt, Iran, Palestine, North Africa, Spain and Central Asia. Trade routes, oases, cities and ports were conquered, which made more and more money and goods available. While the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse, the areas that became part of the Muslim empire actually started flourishing. Meanwhile, chaos reigned in Central Asia after the collapse of the Persian Empire, which paved the way for the Muslims to move further and further east. They reached China at the beginning of the eighth century.

With the enormous expansion of the Muslim empire, the influence of Islam and the Arabic language also grew. This Semitic language has its own alphabet that consists of 28 letters and is written from right to left. Traders brought their language and religion to places where they traded with the local population and left their impressions and knowledge behind. Marriages between Arabic speakers and speakers of other languages also contributed to the spread of the language, as well as migration from the Arabian Peninsula to other parts of the empire, ranging from what is know today as Morocco to Afghanistan. Oh, and remember when I mentioned that Muhammad’s revelations were not recorded in the Qur’an until after his death? This holy book was written in Arabic. This means that anyone who converted to Islam in the vast empire had to learn Arabic in order to understand the message of the Qur’an. After all, translations were not as widespread as they are today.

More, more, and more!

If you thought that the expansion of Arabic stopped there, you are mistaken! An era known as the Islamic Golden Age started in the year 750. This was a time when enormous developments took place in linguistics, literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, medicine and more. During this period, Arabic became the preferred language of many scholars and Arabic translations of literature and poetry were increasingly produced.

Baghdad was the centre of these developments. This city was founded in the second half of the eighth century near the Silk Road under the name of Madinat as-Salam, or “the city of peace”, when the Islamic empire reached its peak in terms of area and prosperity.

One of these developments that is still with us today is our current number system, which was derived from Arabic numerals. Did you know that the word “cipher (number)” comes from the Arabic ṣifr, which means “zero”? We Europeans adopted the word ‘cipher’ to mean “zero” because we did not have a term for this arithmetic concept yet. Around the year 1500 we first began to use the word “zero” for this purpose and the word ” cipher” took on its current meaning, which means number in common language.

The Islamic golden age drew to a close around the year 1250, when the Crusades were rampant and the Mongols under Dzhengis Khan were conquering territories from the east. Nevertheless, as you have read, the Arab world has had a tremendous impact on our society that you can still find everywhere today. Now that you have learned more about the spread of Islam and the development of Arabic into one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, I hope that you have become curious about other aspects of Arabic culture. There is much more to discover, and I would love to take you on a journey through the Arab world!

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