Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean

By Patricia Risso | Go to book overview

2 Muslim Expansion in Asia,
Seventh Through Twelfth
Centuries

The Rise, Development, and
Expansion of Islam

The early Islamic centuries, especially from the eighth into the eleventh, have often been described as a golden age; expansion and trade figure prominently in the positive image. During this time, Muslims had a crucial impact not only over a vast land area but also in the Mediterranean basin and along the Indian Ocean littorals. Factors external to the Islamic world created opportunities that help to explain this maritime phenomenon. An example is the economic expansion of the Chinese during the Song era, discussed later in this chapter, which had ripple effects in the Middle East. But there were also factors internal to the Islamic world that contributed to Muslim maritime success. To identify these, it is necessary to look at the rise, development, and expansion of Islam.

Many historians believe that if they can identify and explain the factors behind its emergence, they will have a handle on the nature of Islam. One well-known Western interpretation—outside of a faith perspective but not inconsistent with one—is that early Islam provided a social rationale for a transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle in the Hijaz province of seventh-century tribal Arabia. According to this interpretation, the rise of Islam had much to do with the economic vitality of Mecca, located along a caravan route, ostensibly linking the lucrative trade of the Yemen and Byzantine Syria and bypassing the adjacent Red Sea route of antiquity. One scholar who builds on this premise is William Montgomery Watt. He depends heavily on Muslim sources, which provide the most information but many of which were written long after the events they describe. Watt says that the clans of the dominant tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh, were undergoing profound changes brought about by commercial success and sedentarization. While the previous harsh nomadic existence of their recent forebears required interdependence

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