…the Arabs burst out of their homeland to set their stamp upon the world…
Their eruption was one of the most astonishing events of history. In A.D. 622 Mohammed and his disciples emigrated from Mecca to Medina, about 270 miles to the north, where they established the first of the Islamic governments and thus initiated the Moslem epoch: Moslems still date their years, which are shorter than Christian years, from the year of the Hegira ( A.D. 1971 is A.H. 1391). The Arabs were then a people almost entirely isolated from the world, poor, mostly illiterate, and fearfully ignorant. Yet little more than a century later so explosive was the inspiration of Islam that the armies of the Arabs not only controlled the entire southern Mediterranean shore but had marched eastward to the Indus, westward to the Atlantic, northward to the steppes of Central Asia, and had stormed Europe to make Islamic provinces of Spain and Sicily. There was a time when even the pope paid them tribute.
So the Arabs became a Great Power, but already their success was complex and contradictory. The distinction between Church and State was unclear from the beginning: in Mohammed’s own mind there was no distinction. This made a curious basis for imperial expansion. The Islamic empire began as a religious movement, it being the duty of Moslems to spread the word among the infidels, but its noblest characteristic turned out to be tolerance. Millions of its new subjects accepted the Islamic faith, but, at least for Jews and Christians, there was no compulsion to do so, and the conquerors proved to be unexpectedly adaptive and assimilative.
Newly escaped from the Ignorance, the Arabs were eager learners. They respectfully absorbed the scholarship and experience of the conquered civilizations- in the east the civilization of the Persians, in the west the dying Greco-Roman civilization. They became the entrepreneurs of knowledge, between the vanished world of the classical ancients and the new world of the Renaissance that was to come; for a time when Christian Europe was hamstrung by dogma, Moslems were generally free to make what intellectual explorations they would.
With extraordinary speed the Arabs familiarized themselves with the whole known world. They became great travelers and sailors. Arab merchants were to be found in China, in Russia, and in many parts of Western Europe; there are still Arabic words in the Icelandic language, and the earliest known Swedish currency was based upon an Arab measure of weight. Everywhere they picked up skills,styles and ideas. They produced a succession of celebrated mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, architects, and historians, and in the centers of their learning- in southern Spain, in Egypt, in North Africa- they achieved a splendid synthesis of Eastern and Western, classic and contemporary culture.