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Medieval Geopolitics: The Origins of Jihad and the Islamic Conquests

By Andrew Latham

In its pre-modern conceptualization, jihad was designed to expand and defend the Islamic state by making it a social duty for Muslims to actively “fight in the path of Allah” and thereby prove the authenticity of their faith. This social duty was the life-long effort of the Prophet Mohammed, who not only led the early Islamic movement but heralded a political revolution that incited the transformations necessary for the Islamic Conquests to take control of three-fifths of the Christian world.

The coming of the Islamic Conquests occurred during Mohammed’s reign, from 622 CE to his death in 632 CE. During this long decade, three major transformations took place in the political dynamics of the Arabian peninsula that created the conditions necessary for the conquests. This short column will explain the historical context for the conquests and the three major transformations that made them possible.

First, Arabian tribes united around the new ideological and institutional structures of Islam, giving rise to a revolutionary Islamic state capable of tackling the logistical challenges of conquest. Second, converts to Islam accepted an identity as a member of the Muslim community, or the umma, that placed them in an antagonistic relationship with non-Muslims. And third, Mohammed and other religious elites articulated the concept of jihad, which quickly became embedded as a fundamental social duty in Islamic society. Absent these transformations, the Islamic conquests would have been a historical impossibility.

The origins of the Islamic Conquests are rooted in the political and religious revolutions led by the Prophet Mohammed and his followers. The early Islamic movement gravitated around a discourse of radical monotheism led by Mohammed, which was in part a spiritual reaction against materialist elements within the pagan Meccan society. As religious reformers, Mohammed and his followers sought to introduce all Meccans to accept his claim of being the exclusive apostle of God, and the Islamic values of religious devotion, moral purity, and discipline. By early 630 CE, after years of resistance from the more powerful Meccans, Muslims had overtaken Mecca and established a new centre of moral and political authority in Arabia. Within years, the once tribally fragmented Arabia emerged as a unified state.

The structural reforms associated with Arabia’s unification profoundly transformed conflict within the post-Antiquity Near East world order. Muslim Arabia emerged as a thoroughly autonomous religio-political institution that became a powerful military force. And unlike other authorities in the region and its opponents, it developed a capacity to mobilize dispersed Arab tribes, through its monopoly of power, within the spiritual domain of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only was there one universal and undivided God, whose moral authority existed in a single locus of terrestrial power (the Prophet Mohammed), there was also an exclusive, unified Islamic community.

Muslims called this community the umma. While the mere concept of the umma did not unify Arabia, its promise of reward in the afterlife in exchange for devout allegiance furthered the message’s appeal. The construction of the umma as the primary group identity for all who joined Mohammed’s religion replaced the sense of loyalty and identity Arabs gave to their tribes. The ensuing alliance of the tribes under the umma elevated Islam to not merely a religion but a political institution capable of advancing and defending its interests abroad.

The umma discourse necessarily entailed a social order that differentiated between Muslims (a privileged position as a people possessing a moral authority) and non-Muslims, who were perceived as morally bankrupt. All Muslims were called to stand united against non-Muslims, or ‘Unbelievers.’

With this posture, Muslim religious scholars eventually drew a distinction between those who inhabit Dar al-Islam, or the house of Islam, and Dar al-Harb, or the house of war. This placed believers in Dar al-Islam, constituted by territory governed by Muslims that connoted peace, in lieu of the umma ideal. Conversely, Dar al-Harb was made up of territory controlled by non-Muslims, a blasphemous congregation viewed as having rejected Islam and thereby asserting a state of conflict with Muslims. This was further broken down to distinguish between hostile and passive non-Muslims. Islamic leaders mandated their armies to meet only hostile non-Muslims with force, whereas passive non-Muslims were to first be invited to adopt Islam and live in Dar al-Islam. This made the goals and interests of Muslims and non-Muslims inherently contradictory and destined to come into conflict.

For these structural antagonisms to translate into an unprecedented form of violence, one final condition had to crystalize: the evolution of the institution of jihad. While controversial as a subject of (Western) academic study, Muslim scholars, as well as its initial practitioners, conceived of jihad as a kind of warfare that had spiritual significance. Designed to expand and defend the Islamic state, it made combat a social duty, and effectively sacralized combat in the Islamic structure of war. It gave Muslims a martial identity, one that allowed them to wipe away their sins by taking up the sword. Sinners could testify the purity of their faith by dying in battle, an act of martyrdom that guaranteed passage into Paradise.

Thus, the individual’s struggle was bound to the state’s struggle. In these ways, jihad came to define the moral purpose of war in Islamic society, and on a more profound level, the way an individual could express the meaning of their humanity as an extension of God’s will.

As a concept and act sanctioned by God, jihad constructed war as a legitimate response to political life in Islamic society. Jihad was born out of Mohammed’s sense of persecution against him and his followers by the Meccan pagan elites during the early years of Islam. Early Qur’anic revelations gave Muslims permission to attack pagan Arabs, but this was later interpreted to include all hostile non-Muslims. As Sura 2:190 states, “Fight in the path of God, those who are fighting you; But do not exceed the bounds. God does not approve of aggressors!”  Legitimate jihad was thus a response against only those who aimed to subvert the otherwise peaceful expansion of Islam via conversion, rather than armed force.


It is this feature of the Islamic institution of war that enabled the primary structural antagonism of Islam (believers vs. unbelievers) to be converted into violent conflicts in certain religiously prescribed circumstances.  The novel social construction regarding the justice of war combined with the aforementioned ontological dimensions of jihad specified the nature and conventions as well as the translocal normative and ideational structures that defined the legitimacy and moral purpose of what became known as the Islamic Conquests.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: Crescent-Shaped Pendant made in Egypt during the 11th century. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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