Nomadic Life & the Expansion of Islam

by Eleanor McKenzie
The desert Arabs had no problems adapting to a military life on the move.

The desert Arabs had no problems adapting to a military life on the move.

Islam started in the country now known as Saudi Arabia. It is likely that nomads from the Arabian desert had been venturing into the more northerly countries of the Arabian peninsula since 3000 B.C. but were only first recognized as a distinct ethnic group around 853 B.C. in the historical report of a battle between Damascus and Assyria. The Arabs' nomadic lifestyle had a major bearing on spreading Islam and creating an empire.

Nomadic Culture

A nomadic culture leaves few traces. There are no great buildings for archaeologists to unearth or evidence of settled occupations. The nomads carry their homes and possessions with them, leaving little evidence of their presence. Nomadic peoples compensate for the lack of material goods by carrying the riches of their culture in their minds. The Arab nomads listened to stories about historic battles and heroic characters as well as romantic tales of love and the idea of the oasis as paradise. Most nomads forget these oral histories when they settle, according to History World. However, early Muslim scholars decided to write down the nomadic Arab history in poetry form, and this decision played a significant role in creating a great Muslim army as the historic tales of heroism fueled the will to fight for Islam.

The End of Tribal Squabbles

Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in A.D. 610 and died in 632. One of Islam's greatest achievements in Arabia was changing a social structure based on family kinship to a structure based on brotherhood through religion. Tribal quarrels were a norm of nomadic life for the Arab desert dwellers, but the unity taught by Islam helped the nomads stop fighting each other and start fighting together. The nomadic Arabs already had a long tradition of being fierce fighters and constant movement presented no hardship to them; they had little sense of longing to return home because home was wherever the Arab was in that moment.

The Spread of Islam in Arabia

Muhammad spent most of his boyhood traveling with traders around the Arabian Peninsula. This is how he learned about Christianity and Judaism. These merchant caravans were a peaceful source of spreading the religions. However, Islam spread through less peaceful means. Attacks on the fledgling religion only increased Muhammad's status as leader and built resentment among his supporters toward those Arabs who wanted to suppress Islam. Islam's followers were united by their pride in having a uniquely Arab religion. The nomadic Arabs formed the majority in the Muslim army, and their ferocity and love of warfare ensured that most of the Arabian Peninsula was Muslim by A.D. 638, a mere six years after Muhammad's death.

Creation of an Empire

Only the Mongols, another nomadic culture, have rivaled the Muslim army in terms of sudden and dramatic expansion. Persia had fallen to the Muslims by 637, and they made inroads into Africa by 640. The terrain of North Africa, most of which is the Sahara desert, presented few challenges to an army that was born for desert life. The Muslim army and its traders, scholars and clerics soon arrived in West Africa where they became invaluable political advisers. North Africa provided a base for entry into Europe, and by the end of the eighth century, Islam had an empire stretching from India to Andalusia thanks to its traveling army of nomads.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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