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The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In,: A Book Review


by Hugh Kennedy


Written by Abram Bergen

Abram Bergen is a logophile, thinker, reader, and writer. His research/writing interests include gender and sexuality issues, hybridity and identity politics, secular ethics, and ecosensitive technologies and lifestyles. His day job keeps him too much removed from the world of ideas and words.

Published November 27, 2007

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The spread of Islam, first through conquest, then migration, has had a tremendous impact on the world in which we live. Today, certainly by Hollywood and the Western media, that impact is usually framed in terms of terrorism. Again and again, Arabs in general and Muslims in particular are portrayed as backward, hateful, violent people fueled by an ideology that despises freedom and glorifies, indeed rewards, violence. If your impressions of Arabs and Muslims have been formed mainly by this kind of pejorative, simplistic, us-versus-them, clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, you may expect the story of the great Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries to depict a brutal and grotesque bloodbath.

When I first received an advance reading copy of Hugh Kennedy's The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, I approached it with a certain apprehension. I worried about the kind of bias it might contain. The subtitle can lead one to expect some kind of discussion on how the world is different now because of the Arab conquests and the spread of Islam. Although the preface and foreword put me somewhat at ease, I still kept waiting impatiently, no matter how interesting the narrative, to see what kind of conclusions would be drawn at the end. As it turns out, the subtitle refers more to how the world at the time was changed, than to what impact it has today. The Great Arab Conquests is a fascinating grand narrative told in a remarkably straightforward and balanced way.

Hugh Kennedy has taught at the University of St Andrews' School of History, is Professor of Arabic in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East at SOAS (School of African and Oriental Studies) at the University of London, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2000. He has written a number of books before The Great Arab Conquests, including The Courts of the Caliphs (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004), Crusader Castles (Cambridge University Press, 1994), and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise And Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty (Da Capo Press; New Ed edition, March 30, 2006). Kennedy lives in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Map lovers will like the series of maps at the beginning of The Great Arab Conquests. The list of illustrations and maps precede even the preface and foreword. The maps are fascinating, but I wish Kennedy had added or overlaid modern maps too. With my limited knowledge of medieval geography, the historical maps were at times difficult to understand. People with more knowledge in this area will certainly find them very helpful. I did find myself flipping back to the maps many times when confronted with names of places conquered, places where major battles were fought, and places that held out for some time, resisted capture, or even reversed the spread of Islam.

The Great Arab Conquests is intended to appeal to both the academic and lay reader, a practice seemingly on the increase. It is not, it would seem, an easy task for someone accustomed to writing only for an academic audience. To make the book accessible to the lay reader, Kennedy has chosen to limit the "scholarly apparatus," contenting himself instead with "noting the main sources used, the origins of direct quotes and the most relevant secondary literature." He has also chosen to write the text in what he calls an "unashamedly narrative" form, a choice of words that indicates a certain discomfort with that form in academic circles. Whatever case may be made against it from a scholarly perspective, the narrative form does result in a more accessible, more fluid, more engaging and enjoyable read.

Academic and critical readers need not be concerned about the narrative form and lack of "scholarly apparatus" in the text itself. There is much of substance in the book, and the text itself is not diluted. The narrative is frequently, though not to the point of distraction, interrupted by qualifications and notes about the often fragmentary, confused and contradictory nature of the sources, as well as about biases. However, the bulk of the more academic discussion is in the preface and foreword, including discussion of the authors' sources, the problems associated with that material, his use of and approach to it, and the state of relevant scholarship. There is also a good bibliography, and extensive notes.

In the foreword Kennedy makes a number of very interesting points about the use of sources. Some of these points are particularly relevant to current anti-Arab/anti-Muslim sentiments. Kennedy notes that historians since the 19th century "have wrung their hands and lamented the disorganization of the material, the apparently legendary nature of much of it and the endless repetitions and contradictions." However, what I find most relevant to today's sentiments are the wide-reaching challenges mounted in the 1970s and 1980s against the reliability of the early sources. "The result of this critical onslaught," Kennedy notes, "was that many historians, even those not convinced by all the revisionist arguments, have been reluctant to take these narratives seriously or to rely on any of the details they contain."

Kennedy argues that there are a number of reasons for a return to the early Arabic sources, including the fact that there exist sources outside of the Arabic tradition, notably the Syriac Khuzistan Chronicle and the Armenian history of Sebeos, "both written by Christians within a generation of the events they describe," that can be used to check against the Arabic literary tradition. There are also Greek, Coptic, and Latin sources, as well as archaeological records that can be used similarly. Kennedy makes brief mention of the archaeological evidence being at times "bedevilled by contemporary political concerns," but fails to discuss the wider implications of the time at which the wide-reaching challenges against the use of the Arabic literary tradition were mounted. It seems not at all unreasonable to suggest that the politics of oil and the rise of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim sentiment in the 70s and 80s may have contributed to the sudden reluctance to take the Arabic tradition seriously.

The question the text itself attempts to answer was asked in the 680s by the monk John Bar Penkaye. How, he asked, "'could naked men, riding without armour or shield, have been able to win... and bring low the proud spirit of the Persians?' He was further struck that 'only a short period passed before the entire world was handed over to the Arabs.'" For Penkaye, the answer was clearly that it was God's will. Kennedy attempts to update the answer for a world, thirteen centuries later, "where divine intervention is, for many people, not an entirely satisfactory explanation of major historical changes."

The text is arranged in separate chapters on the foundations of conquest and the various places conquered, from Syria and Palestine to Iraq, Egypt, the Maghreb, Transoxania, and Samarqand. There are also chapters discussing the furthest reaches East and West, sea warfare, voices of the conquered, and conclusions.

Particularly interesting, because the voices of the conquerors are almost universally the clearest and loudest, is the chapter on the voices of the conquered - "works, histories, apocalypses and poems, which give some insight as to how the people in the aftermath of the conquests regarded their new masters and what they considered to be the losses, and sometimes the benefits, that the conquests had brought them." The responses range in geography from "Spain in the west to the account of a Chinese prisoner of war in Kufa." They range in tone from a "denunciation of the Muslims as complete barbarians" by Sophronius, the Greek-writing patriarch of Jerusalem, to "Mar Gabriel's conviction that they were much better masters than his co-religionists, the Byzantines." The voices include Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, and are drawn from Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Chinese.

Many of the early Christian responses come to us in the form of apocalypses in which the coming of the Arabs, in a time also of plague and famine, was seen as one sign of the end times. Interestingly, there is a modern revival of apocalypses in America and elsewhere as citizens observe and/or participate in the various conflicts in the Middle East - the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the "war against terror" in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps soon Iran. To see how widespread this revisiting of apocalyptic visions is, one need only do an internet search with some combination of the keywords 'end times,' 'terrorism,' and 'Islam'. Although most results seem to come from conservative Christian sources, all three Abrahamic faiths are represented. Kennedy does not address this modern recurrence of apocalyptic thought, instead remaining focused on the time of the conquests, but states that the "apocalypse is both faintly absurd and curiously moving. In it we can hear the voice of the subject population."

Other Christians saw the Arab conquests not as a sign of the end times, but as divine punishment. For John bar Penkaye "the Arabs were the instruments of God, sent to punish the Christians for moral laxity and, above all, for heresy; but for him both the Chalcedonian Church supported by the Byzantine authorities and their Monophysites were the real enemy." We must remember that at this time there were a number of Christian Churches, each claiming to be Orthodox, and there was much mutual enmity and even persecution. For John, the rule of Muslims "might be either good or bad depending on the behaviour of the Christians."

Still other Christians in the area, notably Mar Gabriel, the abbot of the Qartmin monastery in present-day Turkey which "survives as one of the most venerable centres of eastern Christian monasticism . . . regarded the coming of Muslim rule as an opportunity rather than a calamity." Through Mar Gabriel we know that some Syrian Orthodox Christians did not merely look on helplessly, but actually aided the Muslim conquest because their rule was considered preferable to Byzantine oppression. The Coptic Christian responses were mixed, reflecting both the idea that Muslim rule was a relief from the brutal rule of Cyrus, and the view that they were brutal barbarians sent as punishment from God. An equally mixed reaction is found, Kennedy notes, in the Latin Chronicle of 754 from Spain.

The Jews of the Middle East also had an apocalyptic literature, not unlike the Christians, but they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, rather than the end of the world. "For the Jews," Kennedy writes, "the last years of Byzantine rule in Syria had been a time of distress and persecution," and "the coming of the Arabs, though attended by much violence and cruelty, promised some alleviation of their condition." One passage describes the second caliph, Umar (634-44), as a lover of Israel, who "'restores their breaches and the breaches of the Temple, he hews Mount Moriah, makes it level and builds a mosque there on the Temple rock.'" However, like many Christian sources (Kennedy writes), they also complained about the taxation.

On the whole, the author writes, "the most striking feature of these voices is the variety of responses," and though many people may have been dissatisfied, few turned that into active resistance. This leads to some answers to the original question of how it was that the Arab conquerors were able to carve out an empire, in just over a century, "similar to the Roman Empire at its height," and which only Tang China could rival. Kennedy attributes the success of the Arab conquerors in part to the fragmented response and the lack of a concerted resistance movement.

Many of the sources, Kennedy points out, also give the impression that "many of the areas conquered had suffered from a declining population in the century after the first appearance of the bubonic plague in the Mediterranean world in 540." Another factor was the series of wars fought between the Roman and Iranian empires. And then there were the internal battles among Christian sects. In many areas conquered by the Muslims, "the invaders benefited from internal tensions in the ancient empires, which meant that, in some cases, they were seen as liberators or at least as a tolerable alternative."

Part of the success, Kennedy suggests, lay also in the unique characteristics of the Muslim forces. Kennedy writes that "[e]nough has already been said about the religious motivation of the invaders, the power of the idea of martyrdom and paradise as incentives in battle," something that is, incidentally, all too frequently mentioned in our media in relation to Islam. It was this "combined with the traditional, pre-Islamic ideals of loyalty to tribe and kin, and admiration of the lone warrior hero. The mixture of the cultural values of the nomad society with the ideology of the new religion was formidable."

Contrary to what one might expect based on depictions and descriptions of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood movies and Western media, the early Arab conquests were not, on the whole, exceptionally violent. Though "[d]efeated defenders of cities that were conquered by force were sometimes executed," Kennedy writes, "there were few examples of wholesale massacres of entire populations." Also, the new subjects were not, in most cases, forced to convert. Muslim authorities established working relationships not only with the former elite, but also with the heads of churches and other religious institutions. "Attraction, not coercion, was the key to the appeal of the new faith," though the desire to escape the poll tax, join the new ruling elite, and qualify for a military career were powerful incentives. In the end, Kennedy writes, "conquest did not cause conversion but it was a major prerequisite."

In The Great Arab Conquests Hugh Kennedy wades through the mass of often fragmentary, confused, and contradictory sources to provide his readers with a cautious and balanced, yet powerful and engaging narrative of the great Arab conquests. He has resurrected the use of the Arabic sources and treats them with respect, using them not just for the reconstruction of specific events, a task for which they are not always well suited, but rather as the foundation myths and social memory of the Muslim society by which they were created. This fascinating book is equally useful to the academic and lay reader.

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