The Rise of Islam

While the Western Romans, Byzantines, and Jews vied for control of Jerusalem during the Middle Ages, another monotheist community evolved on the Arabian Peninsula. This movement will be called Islam, which means peace and or submission and the people of Islam are referred to as Muslims.

Islam was based on a book called the Qur’an [sometimes spelled Koran], which was a collection of Aya or Signs [revelations] received from God by a prophet named Mohammad [aka Muhammad and Mahmet]. The Muslims claim that Mohammad descended from Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ishmael, the son who grew up on the east side of the Jordon River. Mohammad lived until 632 CE, sixty-two years. The Qur’an was compiled after his death.

Mohammad was born about 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. Mecca had long been a caravan trading center as well as Arabia’s most important pilgrim site. It was home to the Kaaba and its Black Stone.

According to legend, the Black Stone, which some people think was a meteorite, came down from the sky during the time of Adam and Eve to show them where to build an altar to God. One of the Arabian tribes, the Quarayshe, to which Mohammad belonged, served as custodians of the Black Stone. Legend states that Mohammad himself installed the stone as the eastern cornerstone of the cube-like black temple known as the Kaaba, the house of God. The Kaaba is roughly 43 feet high and 36 feet wide with one entrance, a golden door called the Babut Taubah. Every Muslim faces in the direction of the Kaaba when he or she prays, no matter where in the world he or she is. And during one of the ceremonies during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, the pilgrims circle the Kaaba. In other words, the Kaaba, which today is the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque, the Al-Masjid al-Haram, existed long before Mohammad founded Islam.

Mohammad, nicknamed the Reliable [al-Amin in Arabic], was described as handsome and intelligent. He had curly hair, wore a beard, was congenial, and possessed a charismatic spirituality. It was said of him that when he shook someone’s hand, he never liked to be the first to let go.

According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book Jerusalem, Mohammad studied Christianity as a child with a Christian monk. He also studied Jewish scriptures. Then in the year 610, Mohammad had an epiphany while he was meditating at the Cave of Hira outside Mecca. The Archangel Gabriel(1) visited him and let him know that he was to serve as a prophet of God –a messenger between God and the people on Earth, an inspirational visionary. Mohammad had been chosen by God to join the ranks of Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Ezekiel, David, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, and the other Christian and Jewish prophets.

After this visitation, Mohammad’s face was flushed, sweat poured from his face, he fell silent, and his body became limp. He fell to the ground and felt himself surrounded by humming sounds and visions.(2) According to the Bible, Moses had a similar experience after he was told he was to become a prophet.

Montifiore wrote, “Muhammad preached submission [Islam in Arabic] to the one God in return for universal salvation, the values of equality and justice, and the virtues of pure living, with easily learned rituals and rules for life and death.” Mohammad revered the prophets written about in the Bible, but taught that his revelations superseded the revelations of earlier prophets. He stressed the coming of the Apocalypse, which he called the Judgment, the Last Day, or the Hour, with a good deal of urgency.

Montifiore also pointed out that Islam and all the Judaeo-Christian scriptures “stressed that The Hour or Final Day of Judgment could take place only in Jerusalem.”

Like the Christians and the Israelites, the Muslims believed there was only one omnipotent God. Their name for God was al ilāh [Allah], literally The God. The purpose of man’s existence was to love and serve al ilāh. All three movements [Christianity, Judaism, and Islam] believed Abraham’s God was the only real God and the only creator of the universe. All three religions claimed that other gods, such as an earth god, or a sun god, never existed and therefore, had no power.

Through the Muslim movement, Mohammad united the tribes of Arabia. Sometimes Islam displaced existing cultural traditions. Sometimes it combined elements of other religions in the area, including Christianity and Buddhism. Its influence spread(3) up the Arabian peninsula and around the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea, taking over much of the territory of the Byzantine Church. Within only four years from Mohammad’s death, in 638 CE, Arabian Muslim armies snatched control of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Christians.

In the same manner that Christian pilgrims visited the Holy Lands to pay tribute, Muslims visited Mecca. The Arabic word for pilgrimage is hajj [aka hagg]. Every healthy and financially capable Muslim male was [and still is] required at least once during his lifetime to participate in the Annual Hajj to Mecca. During one of the ceremonies, the pilgrims walk meditative circles around the Kaaba. While they are at it, most of the pilgrims try to kiss or at least touch the now well-polished Black Stone embedded it its wall.

The Muslims did not expel the Christians from Jerusalem. Even better news, they invited the Jews back to the city. For the next 400 years, all three monotheistic groups lived relatively peacefully together in the 0.55-square-mile-metropolis. Christians from all over Europe continued on a regular basis to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. And Muslims from all over the world visited Mecca. What is important to this story is that all this traveling helped people in the East learn about people in the West and visa versa.

690 CE – The Muslims Migrate to Mauritania

By the late 600s, Islam had spread west across North Africa. In 690 CE, Muslim General Uqba ibn Nafi lead his forces to take control of northern Mauritania. The Arabs renamed the area using the Berber term for Land of God, which is Marrakesh. To Europeans, the name morphed to Marruecos, then Marrocos, and finally to today’s Morocco. The Arabs also called the area al Maghrib, the Arabic term for Kingdom of the West. [Al, as you have probably figured out, means the in English.]

West African Muslims became known as Moors, a shortened version of Mauretania and Morroco. Most Moors had the dark skin of the West African populations. Europeans will describe the Berber and northern tribes as having “tawny-colored skin.” They will describe the people living below the Niger River as having black skin.

711 CE– The Moors Invade Iberia

Only twenty years later, which was little more than a hundred years after the Suebians and Visigoths invaded the Iberian Peninsula from the north, the Moors invaded Iberia from the south. Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad led the Muslim armies across the strait marked by the pillar of Hercules afterward named after him, Jebel Tariq, or Gibraltar. [Jebel meant Mount in Arabic]. The Moors named southern Iberia, al-Andalus [possibly after the Vandals who lived there]. By 716, they had captured the port of Lagos in today’s Portugal. They continued invading the southern fringe of Portugal and named it al Garve, which was Arabic for The West. [Today’s commonly used term “the Algarve” literally means “the the West.”

Within only a few years, the Moors had invaded Iberia as far as Galicia above the Rio Douro [River of Gold]. At the mouth of the Rio Douro they ran into Portucale, today’s Porto. Porto had been well populated since the Celts settled there thousands of years earlier.(4)

When the Moors arrived to Porto, they found it occupied by the Lusitanians and more recent Christian Visigoths. The Lusitanians and the Galicians living farther north in Braga battled the Moors with the same fierce determination that had driven them against the Romans, and with which they would later drive out the Castilians. The Moors punished them severely for that by laying to waste both Braga and Portucale. However, like the Romans, the Moors found they did not like Asturias, the land north of the Douro River. They thought it was too rainy. So they left Asturias to the Christians, and pulled back south of the Douro.

Not long after retreating from Asturias, the Moors headed toward France. In 735, they marched across the Pyrenees mountains. Before they got too far, they were met and defeated by a Frankish general named Charles Martel. [We will come back to Charles Martel in the article about France.] The Moors retreated once more to their position below the Douro on the Iberian peninsula.

By 790 CE, the Moors had reached the height of their occupation. They inhabited nearly 85 percent of Iberia with their capital at Córdoba. Córdoba was, therefore, the western end of the Muslim culture that extended all the way to the eastern end of Persia. The Muslims brought with them the latest technology from Mesopotamia, particularly their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They increased literacy. Over 400,000 books populated the caliph’s library. [The caliph was the Muslim religious leader.] They also brought linen paper to Iberia, which was less costly for producing books than parchment scrolls.(5) Arabian cartography studios developed on the nearby island of Majorca.

Like in Jerusalem, the Muslims made no effort to drive other cultures out of Iberia. On the contrary, they honored the thousands of Jews who had fled to Iberia when they were expelled from Palestine by the Romans and Christians. Muslims called Jews the People of the Book. The caliphs welcomed Jewish scholarship, their astrologers, and physicians, and particularly their knowledge of medicine and chemistry. Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians lived together peacefully as they built the thriving metropolises of Madrid, Toledo, Córdoba, Granada, and Seville. The Muslims continued their occupation of Iberia for the next seven centuries.

The Reconquista

All the while, the Christian kingdoms in Asturias began to unite. Between 721 and 725, an Asturian warrior named Pelayo combined his forces with those of his Christian neighbors and beat out a Muslim army in the Battle of Covadonga. The Kingdom of Asturias under Pelayo planned to capture back for the Christians the lands the Moors had claimed. This movement, known by its Spanish name, the Reconquista, will take the Christians 700 years to complete.

The Birth of Castile

As the Christians in Asturias conquered lands to the southeast, they built castles to enclose and protect themselves. The land filled with castles came to be known as Castile. Pelayo’s son-in-law, Alfonso, served as the first King of Castile. Alfonso’s son became Alfonso II, King of Asturias and Castile.

[By the way, you may have noticed that the Portuguese word for Alfred is Afonso, whereas the Castilian and Spanish spelling is Alfonso, with an “l.”]


  1. According to the Christian Bible, there are two Archangels: Gabriel and Raphael.
  2. This story is similar to the story about the Christian prophet Moses coming face to face with God or an angel on Mount Sinai.
  3. The quick movement by the Islam religion has sometimes been attributed to the extremely swift and agile Arabian horses.
  4. Today you can view the Celtic ruins of Citãnia de Briteiros (Britons) near Braga.
  5. Paper-making technology moved slowly. Early records indicate Pakistanis were making paper in the sixth century. Arabs were making it in Samarkand by 751, Baghdad by 793, Egypt by 900, and finally in Fez, Morocco by 1100.
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