Guardian: Fifteen centuries ago, Arab armies fanned out from the Middle East in search of conquest. For some who took part, the incentives were material – rich prizes were on offer from cities that paid tribute, surrendered or were sacked. For others, it was the spiritual rewards that appealed most: spreading the words that had been handed down to the prophet Muhammad, and which were later recorded in the Qur’an.
Most who look at the rise of Islam look at the confrontation between Muhammad’s followers, and their successes against the Christians in the Mediterranean – the fall of Egypt and the submission of Spain, the capture of Sicily and the advances into Asia Minor. That, however, is only half the story. While the spread of Islam to the west was significant, its spread eastwards was crucial.
In the decades after Muhammad’s death, Arab armies swarmed through what is now Iraq and Iran, taking control of the heart of the world in the process, the cauldron where civilisation itself began, before driving forwards to the frontier with China.
There was much to be gained – not to mention proof of divine authority – in capturing the heartlands of the Roman empire; but the early Islamic world grew because it looked in both directions. There were rich rewards available elsewhere. Isis has worked this out too.
As last week’s attacks in Jakarta show, Isis’s field of vision is not limited to Europe. Recruits have been flocking to Syria from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in such numbers that the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit (Katibah Nusantara) has been formed. Leaders across south-east Asia have been warning for months about the threat posed by young men who have been trained by Isis and who either have returned home or will do so in coming months.