War Without End: A Brief History of the Muslim Conquests


November 1, 2005

We tend to take the current military, economic, and technological superiority of the West relative to the Islamic world for granted and project it onto earlier centuries. With the luxury of hindsight, many Western historians look back at the expansion of Islam in the context of a decaying Byzantium; the medieval Crusades are seen as prequels to modern Western imperialism and paroxysms of Christian religious fanaticism. Yet the West’s security in relation to the Muslim world is recent—and hard-won.

Crusading ideals in the West were an answer to the greater threat of jihad. They were spurred by fear and necessity in a desperate competition with Islam that, for many centuries, Christians lost—and were aware that they were losing. The extent of Islam’s victories can be seen in the all-but-complete disappearance of the once-thriving Christian communities in North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Asia, as well as the deep roots that Islam still has in the Balkans—a region whose very name was imposed upon it by successful late medieval Turkish imperialism.

Islam is a remarkably successful religion that for most of its existence has inspired its adherents to creatively synthesize the often-conflicting requirements of warfare, imperial politics, and missionary zeal. Projecting Western freedom of action backward in time seriously distorts the more dramatic story of ongoing Western weakness that almost destroyed Christendom. The pathos and peril of much of contemporary radical Islam’s protest against the West is not fueled primarily by aggrieved victimhood; it is nourished by an even stronger memory of how Islam’s final victory over Christendom remained for so long a real possibility. Muslim triumphs in earlier centuries were the crucible that forged both Christendom’s fears and Islam’s confidence.

The Rise of the Dar al-Islam

Unlike Christianity, which began on the margins of social and political life in the Roman world and stayed there for centuries, Islam quickly achieved a good bit of worldly success. Within a century of the death of the prophet Mohammed, his followers had overrun most of the southern half of the Mediterranean world. Muslim armies advanced from the Arab peninsula all the way to southern France to the west; north to the outlying districts of Constantinople, the greatest city of Christendom; and further eastward to the ancient civilizations of Persia, India, and the easternmost borders of China.

In Islam’s first centuries, Muslim scholars and jurists formulated their understanding of the religious and political division of the world into the Dar al-Islam, or the House of Peace, and the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. While truces between Islamic and non-Muslim polities were acceptable, the Koran taught that these were to be limited in duration. Ultimately, no permanent peace between Muslims and nonbelievers was possible until all nonbelievers submitted to Muslim rule, and the Dar al-Islam encompassed the whole world. Jihad, either in the form of the “greater jihad” (the struggle all Muslims must wage against sin) or the “lesser jihad” (the armed struggle with nonbelievers), was integral to bringing wholeness and unity to a divided world.

Islam’s original conquests were terrifying in their power and speed. They struck the Mediterranean world at a time when domestic strife and war made a common front against Arab Muslim expansion impossible. Fierce doctrinal disputes among Christians and a thoroughly exhausting war with the Persians left the world’s only major Christian power, Byzantium, unprepared to face a frightfully effective jihad. The various small Christian and pagan principalities in North Africa and Spain—like the weakened Zoroastrian Persians—were even less able to turn back the Muslim armies.

Christian and Persian weakness and the success of Islam in bringing large tracts of territory under its control produced a range of reactions among Christians and Muslims. In the West, particularly in Spain, the Muslim religious presence left surprisingly few traces in the sparse Christian documents of the first century after the conquest. It appears that most Christians accepted their new Muslim overlords with equanimity. Indeed, many found that collaboration with rulers who were tied into the Dar al-Islam’s “common market,” stretching from Spain to the Hindu Kush in India, was more profitable than resistance against a new ruling class whose demands were not initially onerous and whose military power was irresistible.

The earliest Spanish documents that dwell at any length on the Muslim presence as a religious issue are the works of St. Eulogius, written more than a century after the conquest, in the 850s. His Liber Apologeticus Martyrum, written to other Christians in Spain, defended the sanctity of Christian martyrs (“the 40 martyrs of Cordoba”) who had recently been executed for publicly denouncing Islam and the Prophet. Eulogius, who would soon be killed himself by Muslim authorities for defending the martyrs, addressed Christian objections that those whom the Muslims had executed were not martyrs because they had “suffered at the hands of men who venerated both God and the law.” This illustrates how thoroughly most Spanish Christians were submitted to Islamic rule; they defined both Muslims and their relations to Islam entirely in Islamic terms.

Frankish resistance defeated a major Arab raid at Tours in 732 A.D., but it was as much their poverty as their arms (and growing divisions within the Dar al-Islam) that defended Christians north of the Pyrenees from incorporation into the Muslim world.

For most Christians in the East, however, the initial expansion and stabilization of Islam was an unmitigated disaster—made worse by continuing Muslim aggression throughout the eighth century. Beginning in the seventh century, the Byzantines secured their greatly reduced landward frontier in the East through a series of drastic militarizing reforms that turned much of the empire into a garrison state. Though its Muslim neighbors lacked the unity to launch all-out assaults, the constant pressure of Muslim raiders searching for slaves and loot—as well as the equally permanent threat of Arab piracy throughout the Mediterranean—required Byzantium to remain on a permanent war footing.

Byzantium endured this centuries-long conflict and produced a remarkable flowering of its culture at home and abroad. Byzantine missionaries, artists, teachers, and soldiers expanded their empire’s cultural, religious, and political influence in the Balkans and southern Ukraine. Yet this revival took place under the shadow of three increasingly heavy swords of Damocles. The first two were of Byzantium’s own making, but forged by the strains of a war for survival: its own fractured, despotic internal politics and its tortured and at times hostile relations with other Christians—both with older Christian Churches to their east and west as well as northward among the newly Christianized peoples its missionaries evangelized. Their belief in the empire’s mission led Byzantines to regard their state as the political center of Christendom—but also produced an imperial arrogance that undermined the empire’s ability to cooperate effectively with other Christians. These two factors were rendered more dangerous still by the third and most unpredictable of threats: the permanent commitment of Muslims to jihad.

The Calm Before the Storm

In the Dar al-Islam, the Byzantines faced an enemy that constantly, if at times sporadically, renewed its commitment to jihad. The Muslim world was strengthened by its contacts with the peoples of Asia and its wider-ranging access to slave labor in Asia and Africa more than Byzantium was by relations with its coreligionists. The original expansion and vast reach of the Dar al-Islam provided it with the necessary power to recover from the period of weakness and division that ensued after its founding. Byzantium, on the other hand, had no such sure allies.

The tenth century is often regarded as a low point in Islamic expansion and jihadist enthusiasm, as well as a time of Byzantine revival as the empire recovered from over a century of hammer blows and engaged in a modest reconquista of some of its territories. Yet even this “low point” saw the development of a whole corpus of jihadist theology and sermon literature matched by equally compelling deeds. Ghazis, or Muslim holy warriors, launched numerous raids on Byzantine territory throughout the century and successfully internationalized their anti-Byzantine struggle by drawing in other peoples to join in the “defensive” effort to hold earlier Muslim conquests and keep Byzantium hemmed into easily assaulted frontiers.

The century opened with a spectacular Muslim success: the Arab sack of the second city of Byzantium, Thessalonica, on July 29, 903, enslaving 30,000 Christians. In 931 Muslim raiding parties reached as far as Ankuriya (modern Ankara), deep in Byzantine territory, and took thousands more Christians captive. Ribats, quasi-monastic Muslim establishments that were part monastery and part fortress, flourished all along the border of northern Syria and southern Anatolia and acted as bases from which Ghazis, who came from as far away as Central Asia, traveled to join in assaults against Christian “polytheists.”

Muslim writers used Byzantine counterattacks to inflame Muslim opinion and sought to bring about religious revival and greater Muslim commitment to jihad. The great jihadist preacher, Ibn Nubata al-Fariqi, developed an entire cycle of sermons that became the model for such literature for centuries and would later inspire Saladin. In sermons that anticipate the tender reassurances of God’s protection that Pope Urban showered on Crusaders over a century later, Ibn Nubata constantly exhorted Ghazis to take up the cause of jihad. Take this passage, for example, cited in Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Routledge, 2000):

Do you think that He will forsake you whilst you are assisting Him, or do you imagine that He will desert you whilst you are steadfast in His path? Certainly not! …So put on—may God have mercy on you—for the Jihad the coat of mail of the faithful and equip yourselves with the armor of those who trust [in God].

If, as some scholars (such as Hillenbrand) have argued, this was the low point of jihadist ideals among Muslims, even this ebb stretched Byzantine defenses and forced them to wage perpetual war. It also sowed seeds that flowered in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Dar al-Islam. Jihad proved to be an integral and hardy perennial in the gardens of Islam.

The End of the Beginning

On the Day of Orthodoxy—March 13, 1071 A.D.—the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV led one of the largest armies that Byzantium had fielded in centuries out of Constantinople. Romanus’s goal was to end the ongoing Turkish raids that were slowly wearing away the defenses of the heartlands of the Byzantine Empire and one of the richest and most ancient centers of Christian life: Anatolia. Though we know this region today as Turkey, in the eleventh century Anatolia was a thoroughly Christian territory. The sad fate of Romanus’s campaign was integral to Anatolia’s renaming and re-creation.

From earliest antiquity, Anatolia’s position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia had made it one of the wealthiest and most heavily urbanized parts of the Mediterranean world. It was a diverse region, containing many large Greek communities as well as Phrygians, Cappadocians, Celts in the region of Galatia, Armenians, and Jews, among others. In this urbanized melting pot of peoples— which included St. Paul’s hometown of Tarsus—Christianity spread rapidly.

The names of a number of the cities in the region, if not their subsequent histories, are especially familiar to those steeped in the book of Revelation: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicia. It seems that the call for repentance recorded in St. John’s revelations proved successful in the early second century, because these and other churches experienced an intense and vibrant urban Christianity and carried out fruitful missionary endeavors. In Anatolia the transition from paganism to Christianity was gentler than elsewhere in the Roman world. The wealth and deep Christian roots of the region recommended it to Constantine as the place to locate Constantinople and refound the Roman Empire in the East. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, Anatolia was the home of eight to ten million people, including many tens of thousands of refugees—most Christian, but some Muslim—from the Dar al-Islam.

Ironically, the people who conquered this region in the name of Islam, the Seljuq Turks, came to their faith peacefully, though they had not experienced the millennia of high culture that set them apart from the peoples of Anatolia. Conversion of the warlike and nomadic Turkish peoples in Central Asia began in the eighth and ninth centuries; they began to migrate to the Middle East in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was these peoples who crushed Byzantine military power in 1071 and thereby brought on the Crusades. Eventually, led by the House of Osman—hence, the

Ottomans—the Turkish peoples completed the conquest of Constantinople and created an empire and a caliphate on Byzantium’s ruins that endured until 1924. The Seljuqs and the Ottomans carried the banners of Islam farther into Christendom than any had reached before.

The Turks, like the first Muslim Arabs, combined the devotion of enthusiastic converts with a determination to wage war for the Prophet and profit. Converted by Sunni missionaries, these Turkish immigrants were appalled by the power (and tempted by the wealth) of the heterodox and latitudinarian Shia who dominated much of the political life of the Middle East at the time. In the eyes of Turkish tribesmen, among the many faults of contemporary Islamic society was its relatively greater tolerance toward Christians and Jews, who lived among Muslims or came as pilgrims to the Holy Places—as well as the less-than-fully-committed pursuit of jihad against the Byzantines.

The Turks sought to cut out this rot in three ways:

  1. Struggle with the heterodox Shia within the Dar al-Islam
  2. Greater persecution of Christians, especially pilgrims coming to the Holy Places in the Dar al-Islam
  3. Vigorous jihad against Byzantium.

It is a testimony to Turkish martial prowess—and the constant bleedings to which both Muslims and Byzantium’s Christian foes had subjected the empire—that they pursued and achieved these objects almost simultaneously.

The disciplines of nomadic life, with its emphasis on horsemanship and horse archery, made the Turks crushingly effective at raiding and war. Seljuq raids into Armenia, which began in the 1020s, devastated the country and began speculation among some Armenian princes and priests that the end of the world was at hand. What made such raids all the more difficult to repel was their constant, yet ad hoc, character. Turkish raiding parties often operated independently. Even treaties the Byzantines negotiated with Turkish princes or the caliph could not restrain raiders who thought of themselves as ghazis and who often had the verbal approval of their overlords to carry on their assaults.

These ad hoc raids enslaved thousands of Christian captives yearly, endangered trade and agriculture along the borders, and wore at Armenia and Byzantium’s defenses; yet worse was soon to come. Alp Arslan (“the Valiant Lion”), the Turkish prince who unified the Seljuqs in 1063 and was eventually to win the great victory of Mantzikert, carried on raids of such brutality and scope that Christian chroniclers referred to him as “a drinker of blood” and one of the forces of the Antichrist.

He worked hard to earn this reputation. Matthew of Edessa, an Armenian historian, describes Alp Arslan’s sack of Ani (now known as Arpa Cay), the capital of Armenia in 1064 (which Seljuq chronicles describe as a “large flourishing city with 500 churches”):

The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it leaving it in ruins, making prisoners of all who escaped the massacre, and took possession. [The number dead were such] that they blocked all the streets and one could not make way for himself without crossing over them. The number of prisoners was not less than 30,000 souls.

I wanted to enter the city and see it with my own eyes. I tried to find a street without having to walk over corpses. But that was impossible.

The Annals of the Siljuq Turks, which describes a whole series of campaigns Arp Arslan waged in Armenia that year—including the destruction of numerous towns and monasteries—corroborates Matthew’s history. In words that reflect no more regret of the costs of jihad than the chroniclers of the Crusades displayed when describing the fall of Jerusalem, the annals report:

They entered the city and killed more of the inhabit-ants than one could count, so that many of the Muslims were unable to enter the city because there were so many corpses. They took captive nearly as many as they killed.

The happy news of these conquests traveled around these lands and the Muslims rejoiced. The report…was read out in Baghdad in the Caliphal Palace and the caliph issued a rescript praising and blessing Arp Arslan.

The sack of Ani proved to be the key to Anatolia. For the next several years Arp Arslan and other Seljuq raiders became more bold in their assaults, sacking major shrines such as that of St. Basil in Cappadocia and in 1070 capturing Chonae, a site famed for its shrine of the archangel (which the Turks promptly turned into a stable).

And so, the next year, Emperor Romanus led his Byzantine army to battle. It did not go well for him.

The Battle of Mantzikert was one of the more decisive and yet unknown battles of the early Middle Ages. Arp Arslan’s forces routed Romanus’s army, taking the emperor himself as prisoner. The panic that ensued in Byzantium was as complete as was the rejoicing in the Dar al-Islam, whose armies had fought Byzantium for centuries without scoring such a success. The Byzantine defeat was made all the more terrible by the successful efforts of Romanus’s rivals to seize the throne during his captivity. The short but sharp civil war that followed—upon his release Romanus attempted to retake his throne and pay the ransom he had negotiated with Arp Arslan—drew even more troops into battle far away at Constantinople. As a result, Byzantine defenses in the east were shattered and the empire divided. The Turks had little trouble mopping up the remains.

The wars that followed were not a traditional conquest; the Turks were too few in number to thoroughly subdue a region only slightly smaller than Texas and containing millions of Christians. Rather, over time, their continual raids throughout Anatolia allowed them to expel, enslave, or impoverish the region’s Christian inhabitants. For the next 300 years the population plummeted by almost half, in spite of increasing Muslim migration to the region. Much of these formally fertile territories became pastureland for the still-nomadic Turks, while many cities fell into ruin. Just as southern Spain would be devastated 500 years later by the expulsion of its Muslim population, Anatolia became a wasteland under the rule of its new, religiously intolerant and alien masters. Furthermore, losing Anatolia permanently crippled Byzantium. The broken eastern shield of Christendom proved an easy target for the ghazis of the Dar al-Islam to evade and eventually shatter in the centuries following Mantzikert.

Once they finished with Eastern Christendom, the gateway to further European conquest was wide open.

Our Enemies, Our Teachers

It is commonplace to claim that the Crusades scarred the imagination of the Muslim world for centuries. While modern Arab nationalists and Islamists have at times pointed to the Crusades as a source of anti-Western views in the Middle East, this is simply incorrect. Bernard Lewis, one of the foremost Western scholars of Islam, has demonstrated that Western Christendom remained a subject of relatively little interest to Muslims for centuries after the Crusades. In spite of the hard-fought campaigns of the Crusades, Arab—and later Turkish—ignorance of even the most basic aspects of Europe’s geography and culture during and after the struggle could make a modern undergraduate blush. For centuries, Western Christendom remained a frontier area for Muslims against which they continued to wage successful war until almost the beginning of the modern era. Beyond that, it held little interest.

From the beginning, Christendom paid dearly to hold its own in the face of the Dar al-Islam’s jihads. The wars that Islam waged against Christendom—and Christendom’s counterattacks—degenerated into remarkably dirty wars that often empowered the worst impulses in both faiths. For Christians these struggles opened up a Pandora’s box of evils: They provided a renewed impetus to popular anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages and helped empower Christian participation in the slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries—a radicalization that chillingly prefigures our country’s current conversations over the use of torture as a legitimate means of combating the jihadist threat.

Yet for Islam the fruits of victory often spoiled. The intermittent but relatively greater tolerance that characterized Islam’s relations with other “peoples of the book” in the Middle East, Muslim Spain, and the Balkans was the tolerance of victors secure in their triumph. Even in the midst of triumph, however, this tolerance was mingled with contempt. The pressures of jihad that called forth the West’s Crusades led Muslims to abuse their power over Christian and Jewish subjects under the Dar al-Islam in campaigns of forced conversion, pogroms, and other brutalities. In the modern era, as the pace of Islam’s advance slowed and the tide began to turn in the West’s favor, the Dar al-Islam’s tradition of tolerance also collapsed. The magnanimity of victory has proven too limited an experience for Muslims to have established tolerance as a key part of their religious culture.

Yet just as natural history reveals that God is peculiarly fond of beetles, human history demonstrates His delight in paradoxes and dialectics. The terror of jihad gave birth to the crusading zeal in the eleventh century that helped delay Islam’s further advance westward. In the face of Islam’s even more successful jihads in the 15th and 16th centuries, Christianity in turn became more aggressive and expansive than it had ever been. Christendom succeeded in garnering power and resources by colonizing the Western Hemisphere and sidestepping the Dar al-Islam’s status as the middleman in trade with Asia, eventually breaking Islam’s hegemonic power in Eurasia. However, as Christendom experienced its greatest triumphs in discovering and colonizing the New World, Christians also turned their own militarized struggles for religious security inward during the Reformation, unintentionally undermining Christendom and leaving a secularizing Western Europe in its wake.

Ironically, then, the successes of Islam’s jihads have ultimately strengthened and built up a Dar al-Harb more resistant than ever to the advance of Islam as it relieved Western Christians from the burden of continuing their battles as religious wars. While jihad is no less terrifying now than it has been for centuries, unlike the past, its current terror contains an underlying anxiety and futility for its devotees. This lies both in modern-day would-be ghazis’ inability to use anything but fear to achieve their goals as well as the subversion by a secular West of the close social, political, and religious unity of Muslim societies.

Let us hope that the nihilism and isolation of jihadist militancy presage the renunciation by faithful Muslims of sacralized violence. Such a turn would free those who call upon the name of the One God from the well-earned stigma of religious brutality.


  • T. David Curp

    T. David Curp is an assistant professor of history at Ohio University, where he teaches the contemporary history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

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