For six days in 732 the armies faced each other outside the northern French town of Tours. Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel led the small ill equipped yet disciplined Christian force against a sea of Arab cavalry and Berber swordsmen. Seemingly the future of Christian Europe would be fought in this field of battle. When the Muslim cavalry finally charged en masse Martel’s men, “seemed like an immoveable sea forming as it were a bulwark of ice,” who gradually pushed their enemies back, freed their slaves and sparked a full-scale retreat. It had only been one hundred years since the death of the Prophet Muhammad yet the Islamic empire stretched from the valleys of the Indus river in modern day India to the Pyrenees in the east. In such a short period of time how did the European kingdom of Christendom find itself on the brink of collapse?
The first Caliph after the death of the Prophet in 632 was Abu Bakr. Immediately he set about abolishing paganism within Arabia and consolidating his power. Unified by their passionate religious belief and financed by an Arab merchant elite, his forces converted the entirety of the Arabian peninsula after a mere four years of campaigning.
The timing of the expansion of Islam was almost perfect. The Byzantine and Persian empires on either side of Arabia had been fighting intermittently for years so were far from prepared to sustain another enemy on the battlefield. To add to this, the Muslim soldiers were tough. Generation upon generation had been nomads in the Arabian desert who were able to sustain themselves on the road considerably easier than their foes. On top of that their morale could not have been higher as they fervently believed that God was on their side and death would bring everlasting life in paradise. Few foes would be any match for them.
As their armies swept through Egypt and Syria in the west and Persia in the east, they were welcomed by the native populations as liberators. After all when they took over they did not force their religion upon those they ruled like the Byzantines did with Christianity. They tolerated the free practice of all religions and only placed a small tax on non-believers. For those being conquered a benevolent and tolerant leader who charged slightly more tax was a more attractive option altogether than one who forced their belief system unilaterally. As a result, they faced little resistance in their new acquisitions.
By 711 all of North Africa had been converted and was now ruled by the formidable general Tariq who cast his eyes north to the Iberian peninsula. Upon arriving on a rocky outpost he named it Jabal al Tariq – the rock of Tariq, or as we know it today ‘Gibraltar’. Within seven years the Spanish Visigoths were defeated, the Pyrenees mounted and it seemed as though Europe was there for the taking. But in the east the Byzantine leader Leo III had finally turned the tide and fourteen years later Charles Martel would do the same at Tours.
As the dust settled after a century of conquest the Islamic empire began to thrive. Gradually non-believers converted; some to save money others for religious reasons. The Christians and Jews who remained true to their faith were treated kindly, indeed when Christians eventually won back Spain in the fifteenth century the large Jewish population there fled to Islamic north Africa where they would be free from persecution.
As Europe entered a frenetic Dark Age, the ancient texts of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were translated and storied in libraries across the empire. Great scientific ideas spread rapidly through pilgrims undertaking the Haj to Mecca. For example water purifying techniques or even medical discoveries such as the flow of blood around the body were exchanged in or on route to Mecca which in turn resulted in an improved lifestyle for much of the great populations within Islam. Cities such as Jerusalem, Baghdad and Delhi became bustling trading centres selling wares from Europe, Africa and Asia alike. Such wealth and security had not been seen since the height of the Roman empire. When Britons in York could once purchase fine wines and oils from southern Europe, now Muslims in Morocco could easily come across cheap Indian spices and silks. Indeed not only was the spread of Islam unique, so was the ability to efficiently manage the greatest landmass the world had yet to see.
In the wake of the battle of Tours prayers were offered in thanks across Christendom for the repulsion of the Islamic hoards, yet it is tempting to wonder what might have been for our civilisation today if 800 long years had not been spent in the sterile Dark Ages but as part of an enlightened Islamic empire.