Traditionally, the emergence of the Islamic empire has been seen as a disruption of a historic trend in which the rise of city-states and empires increasingly confi ned nomadic life to the periphery. The Islamic realm, in that perspective, is seen as nomadic in outlook and tribal in structure and thus as reversing that trend.

Recent research faults this paradigm and assigns the Islamic empire a more productive role in bringing the classical world into modernity. It argues that while Islam emerged in a society largely tribal in structure, the term tribe encapsulates a number of occupational, economic, and social groups, not all of which rely on camel pastoralism or the trade in livestock. Furthermore, the state and society that Islam inspired was not nomadic in outlook but urban and mercantile.

Islamic society was heir to a number of diverse cultural and political developments already characteristic of earlier societies. To its credit, it served as “a positive continuator” for the heritage of past civilizations (Hodgson 1974, 1977, 104), while displacing the old with the new only after a complex synthesis had been achieved, which took place following several decades after its emergence on the world scene.

Quite naturally, the social, political, economic, and religious climate in which Islam was born and the early genesis of what was to become a major world civilization can only be understood against a backdrop of what had gone on before.

Yet, the Islamization of Iraq and the fusion of the region’s heretofore distinctive cultural features (Sassanian administrative traditions, imperial authority, and the divine right of kings) with a rigorously monotheistic and rough-and-ready egalitarianism cannot be seen as merely the wholesale adoption of previous traditions or the rapid acculturation of a society that was bereft of guiding principles of its own.

The story of the Islamic conquests and the setting up of the new state had as much to do with the application of the particular moral vision of the new holistic order in the making as it had to do with the religious and cultural traditions already embedded in the region by past civilizations.

The End of One Era and the Beginning of Another

In the hundreds of years that preceded the rise of Islam, the agricultural and trade potential of both Iraq and the greater zone that encompassed it continued to serve the cities and the countryside of what has been termed the Nile to Oxus region, that is, the area between North Africa, the Iranian highlands, the northern Gulf, and the eastern Mediterranean. Although agriculture was not a widespread activity because of the excessive aridity of the region, overland and seaborne trade fl ourished, acting as the major link between cities, markets, and the greater countryside. The most important commodities traded were spices.

Possibly the more interesting aspects of this region had to do with two almost parallel developments: the rise of monotheistic religions and the construction of culturally specifi c civilizations. The one drew its élan from the thousands of years of spirituality and religious syncretism innate to the region, the other from the widespread use of language (Aramaic being one of the most important).

Thus, even before the rise of the three monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—there already existed charismatic preachers calling for spiritual regeneration and the introduction of codes of morality among men and women. Two important movements preaching a more spiritual cosmic order were those that grew up around Zoroaster, in Sassanian Iran, and Mani, in Iraq. Roughly parallel to these two developing traditions, Judaism and Christianity began to make their mark on the region as well.

Historian Marshall Hodgson explains the difference between these new religions and what had come before:

By the early centuries of the Christian era were thus established . . . organized religious traditions which, in contrast to most of the previous religious traditions, made not tribal or civic but primarily personal demands. They looked to individual personal adherence to (or “confession” of) an explicit and often self-sufficient body of moral and cosmological belief (and sometimes adherence to the lay community formed of such believers); belief which was embodied in a corpus of sacred scriptures, claiming universal validity for all men and promising a comprehensive solution of human problems in terms which involved a world beyond death (Hodgson 1974, 125).

Further, what made these religious traditions persevere and develop was their close connection to a particular state. Zoroastrianism functioned in some ways as a state religion and as an ideological legitimator of the Sassanian Empire, while Christianity had become so intertwined with the Roman Empire after the reign of Constantine I that it became the offi cial creed of the state.

While Abrahamic (exclusively monotheistic) and Mazdean (Hodgson’s term for traditions usually originating in Iran, mixing monotheism with polytheism and a dualistic vision of the world) traditions are usually seen as irreconcilable, at some point, they began to infl uence each other to a considerable degree and to hew to certain fundamental principles that characterized them all.

Eventually, however, the Abrahamic communities (Judaism and Christianity) became the more dominant. With their concentration on “justice in history through community” (Hodgson 1974, 130) and their belief that an individual was answerable for his or her actions in the world, the Abrahamic vision bore witness that God was one, man or woman bore ultimate responsibility for his or her fate, and the notion of an ethical God was kept alive by a community of men and women upholding morality and social justice.

As the fi rst of the monotheistic traditions, Judaism was a signifi cant infl uence in parts of Iraq in the fourth century (Berkey 2003, 10–13). Through migration and conversion (initially very important in the early period), the religion spread rapidly in Iraq, to the point where the number of adherents outstripped the Jewish population of Palestine. Other important stimuli on Islam derived from Christianity. It is estimated that by the late sixth century, Christians constituted the largest faithbased community in pre-Islamic Iraq. Christianity was divided into a welter of sects and confessions, of which the Nestorians were probably the most important.

The dissension between the Christian sects was so sharp that it is considered to have paved the way for the later Islamic conquests, so much so that in the eyes of some Christians, “God permitted the Arabs to triumph as a punishment for Christian disunity” (Berkey 2003, 26). On the eve of the prophet Muhammad’s birth, then, Iraq had imbibed and assimilated a number of monotheistic traditions that paved the way for (in Muslim eyes, at least) the last of the great unitary religions in the region and the development of one of the most enduring and resourceful civilizations on earth.