What was the importance of prophet Muhammad for the success of the Arab conquests?

What was the importance of prophet Muhammad for the success of the Arab conquests?
By Libin Farah

The success of the early Arab conquests can be evaluated through the rapid expansion and execution of military expeditions. Prophet Muhammad’s integral role of organising and leading an Islamic conquest is the core feature to the success of the campaigns. He excelled as a military leader and strategist. He provided the ideological, political and religious framework for which the conquests were initiated and maintained by the Caliphs. He himself was able to unite the Bedouin tribes of Arabia and create unity under the name of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th Century.

Following his example, the Arabs were able to wipe out the Sassanid empire and take over Persia as well as annexing territory from the Byzantine Empire. His significance is only slightly weakened by the economic and political instability in the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, nevertheless prophet Muhammad’s role in orchestrating the conquest along with providing spiritual motivation which was the driving force behind it, I believe that the conquests would not have been as successful as they were.

The introduction of divine Islamic scripture and doctrines into the Arabian Peninsula is at the heart of the Arab conquests. The new teachings were centred around strict monotheism, and while this concept was not foreign as there were existing Jewish and Christian communities, Islam was innovative as it was a religion that was for the Arab people.

The Quran was revealed in Arabic verses and therefore tailored to the Arab people and they felt that they were chosen by God to spread this religion. Islam was attractive as it provided higher spiritual enlightenment and ‘people in Arabia were by no means firmly wedded to their paganism, but were ripe for a higher and a more spiritual faith’. Polytheism and idol worshipping which was practiced commonly was became ‘shallow and inadequate’ in the face of Islam, a new emerging force.

This shift from polytheism to monotheism is central to the success of the Arab conquest as it gave a common identity and purpose to the previously feuding Arabian tribes and this monotheism was instrumental to maintaining Arab unity following prophet Muhammad’s death. Along with monotheism there came a brotherhood and the consolidation of the wider Muslim community known as the Ummah. The notion of the Ummah is significant as it was a symbol of Arab unity based on the commitment to a new religion rather than descent. While the tribal system was not completely eradicated it established peace between Bedouin tribes as looting amongst the Ummah was forbidden. This is important because while tribal differences were difficult to dismantle it enabled them to avert their vigour and fighting spirit towards conquest rather than internal disputes amongst fellow Muslims.

Additionally, prophet Muhammad’s ability to unite the Bedouin tribes who lived nomadic lifestyles within Arabia was a crucial component to the success of the Islamic conquests. During this time, Arab social organisation was tribal and these kinship groups were essential for survival as they ensured social security.

However, prophet Muhammad was able to unify the Bedouin tribes under one Ummah and in this way he had incorporated a political and militant dimension to Islam through this unification. Political in the sense that he was able to unite them under one leadership by drawing on a series of contacts throughout the Arabian-peninsula due to his Quraysh lineage.

The unification had a militant aspect as the Bedouin were renowned and feared for their military combat skills thus allowing prophet Muhammed and the Caliphs to harness their energies and direct them towards territorial expansion. Through networking he created alliances with these tribal leaders who ‘wished to be associated with this new power and some of them had agreed to pay taxes to Medina’. This tributary income was then used to increase the number of horses used for military expeditions.

In the Battle of Badr 624 he had only two horses compared to an expedition to Tabuk 630 there were 10,000 horses therefore there is a direct link between forming ties with nomadic tribes and the success of the Arab conquests. Moreover, prophet Muhammad had asserted himself as a political figure and Medina as a political base. In this way prophet Muhammad ‘created a structure…which became the basis of a vast empire’ by transforming the Arabian Peninsula from a tribal system to an expanding state.

Prophet Muhammad’s capability to inspire the masses through speeches, diplomacy and leadership in battle was an important contributing factor to the success of the conquests. He was able to make his men fight with ‘the spirit and inspiration of his leadership and their arms were mere striking machine.’ This was one of the prevailing reasons as to why the Islamic empire was so vast; because prophet Muhammad had spiritual foresight which he instilled into the Arabs which was to reap the rewards of paradise or receive martyrdom status.

In this way the Arab soldiers felt religiously duty bound to spread Islam in the service of God. Above all, his military strategies and conduct during battle enabled many victories for the Muslims. Prophet Muhammed had set the precedent in his early military campaigns that ‘armed forces were an acceptable and important element in the defence of the new religion and the expansion.’ His military strategies were pragmatic and drew on the strength of the Bedouin soldiers.

As they had nomadic lifestyles they were highly mobile and their equipment was simple yet effective. They were not technologically advanced or in possession of any secret weapons but relied on the element of surprise. Prophet Muhammad was an excellent tactician, ‘his war strategy was beyond the understanding of his enemy and he never adopted the same strategical tactics twice’ demonstrating his perceptive analysis of war.

Even when the Muslims were defeated in Uhud and faced many casualties prophet Muhammad stood with solidarity. Along with the spiritual motivation there was a material one as they raided and looted their enemy’s possessions. Though the material incentive was coupled with the spiritual one the Arabs never lost focus on the religious motive for the conquest. This is evident following the Battle of Uhud 625 and this verse from the Quran (3:152) was revealed:

‘Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission, were about to annihilate your enemy, until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe.’

This verse reinforces the notion that while the material incentive was necessary for their expansion it was mandatory for the Arabs to place their desire for worldly objects secondary to the spiritual rewards and motivation. This balance is best demonstrated by the Prophet himself as he was reported to have said ‘Richness is not having many possessions. Rather, true richness is the richness of the soul. Therefore, the military and spiritual example that prophet Muhammad set enabled the Muslim army to have many victories and to maintain their religious motivations which was the underlying impulse for the Arab conquest.

Although other factors contributed to the success of Arab conquest such as the fragmentation of the existing Byzantine and Sassanian empires. A series of ongoing wars between the two rival powers in the region also facilitated the success of the Arab conquests. The Byzantine-Sasanian wars financially crippled both powers as they had depleted in both human and material resources. The wars destroyed infrastructure and irrigation systems.

This in turn led to famine and the disillusionment of the masses. Under Khosrau II’s rule in Persia taxes rose rigorously to pay the army while the Byzantines were facing bankruptcy. In this way it could be argued that prophet Muhammed was hardly important in the success of the Arab conquest as the Byzantine-Sassanid wars were a necessary prerequisite which helped expedite the Arab conquest as it exposed and exacerbated the lack of domestic support, thus creating a condition in which the masses were embittered and desired an alternative system of rule. Additionally, the constant state of warfare weakened the Sassanids to the point where they could not resist the Arab invasion.

The Arabs seized the power vacuum left by the Sassanians enabling them to expand their sphere of influence. Therefore, the inherent desire for expansion and competition between the traditional rivals which resulted in the resentfulness of their subjects could be argued to have facilitated the success and rapid territorial expansion of the Arabs rather than the impact of prophet Muhammed himself.

Along with the Byzantine-Sassanid wars there were also internal division within these empires which enabled the success of the Arab conquest. These divisions were rooted in religious and linguistic differences amongst the ruling class and the masses. The official religion of Byzantium was Christianity however there was a fundamental cleavage regarding the nature of Christ. The elites believed that Christ embodied humanity and divinity while the masses believe in one nature of Christ who was ultimately divine but simply in human form. The two opposing sects would often come into conflict, which were theological as well as political, often resulted in violence and bloodshed further distancing the two groups apart.

Similarly, in the Sassanian Empire Zoroastrianism was the official religion which was practiced amongst the ruling class however they were large minorities of Jewish and Christian communities thus highlighting the discrepancy between the state and subject. In addition to the religious divergences there were also linguistic differences between the elites and the masses. In Byzantium the language of the ruling class shifted from Latin to Greek and in the Sassanian Empire they spoke official Persian while the mass population in both empires spoke in Aramaic. This precondition of growing disparity between the governing and governed, that had nothing to do with prophet Muhammad, was an important factor in the success of the Arab conquest.

However, it cannot be ignored that because the masses felt little commitment or loyalty towards their rulers they themselves were more receptive to the Arab invasion. The Arabs provided stability and order which was in contrast to the years of instability and turmoil due to continuous warfare. There was no major disruption in the lifestyles of the newly conquered as there was no forced conversion and Arabs adopted the bureaucratic systems of the Sassanid and Byzantine empire which were well established. In this way there was mostly continuity in the administrative and social sphere.

To conclude, the influence of prophet Muhammad is ultimately the paramount reason for the success of the Arab conquests. He was an exceptional leader, military strategist, diplomat and preacher. Prophet Muhammad’s example in his military expeditions were the model used for the conquests after his death. While external factors such as the weaknesses of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires did contribute to the success of the Arab conquest, it cannot be ignored that prophet Muhammad’s leadership and inspiration is what initiated the conquests and was maintained through Arab unity and monotheism.

Prophet Muhammad had added a political, ideological and militaristic layer to Islam and made it a political movement by establishing a base in Medina and thus expanded outward. The unification of the nomadic Arab tribes through the notion of the Ummah is what I ultimately believe to the most important reason for the success of the Arab conquest and this feat can only be credited to prophet Muhammad.


Rahman A. Muhammad as a military leader (London, 1980)

Kennedy H. The Great Arab Conquests (London, 2007)

Bagot Glubb J. The Life and Times of Muhammad (London, 1970)

Cook M. Muhammad (New York, 1983)

Sahih al-Bukari 6081

Montgomery Watt W. Muhammad Prophet and Statesman (Oxford, 1961)

More Articles

Any serious analysis of war must begin with the body

Examine the causes of the partition of India

How useful is liberalism as a framework for thinking about war in world politics?

How important is gender in explaining why people fight?

Colonialism is only one of many ways of practicing imperialism

Secularisation has led to the rise of religion in politics

How did the Cold War affect the Middle East?

Discuss the impact of neo-conservatism on the foreign policy of the United States towards Middle East

Why has gender tended to replace women as a category of historical analysis?

Was the first world war a catalyst for change in the Middle East?

Anarchy is what States Make of it”. Do you agree?

To what extent did Chinese models determine developments in the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago before 1000?

What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia?

Colonialism, far from being over and in the past, continues to hold us and our futures in its thrall. Do you agree?

Discuss the idea of Middle East as a colonial invention?

What kinds of similarities and differences are evident between how systems of rule operated practically?