BOOKS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
THE GREAT ARAB CONQUESTS: How the spread of Islam changed the world we live in, by Hugh Kennedy
, August 16, 2008
How Islam triumphedTHE GREAT ARAB CONQUESTS:
How the spread of Islam changed the world we live in
by Hugh Kennedy
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Phoenix)
Paperback: 464 pages. Rec. price: AUD$30.00Just how Islam came to occupy its pivotal position in the world - not only in the Middle East, but also in Southeast Asia and Africa - is a question which has exercised the minds of thinkers and students of history, without a satisfactory conclusion. Now, Hugh Kennedy has provided an answer, accessible to the general intelligent reader.
Kennedy has taught in the department of medieval history at the University of St Andrews since 1972. St Andrews is a distinguished Scottish university of ancient lineage, amongst the oldest institutions of higher learning in the British Isles.Astonishing feats of arms
The triumph of Islam was one of the most astonishing feats of arms in world history, the more so that it changed the culture and religious beliefs of its subject peoples. Other conquerors before and since, such as the Mongols, conquered great swathes of territory with few lasting cultural reminders.
The book is concerned with the conquest of the central Islamic lands by Muslim armies in the century that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammed in 632 AD. This surge out of the desert wastes of Arabia led directly to an empire that stretched from Spain in the West, to Sindh in modern Pakistan in the East - some 7,000 kilometres from end to end.
As Kennedy makes clear, the triumph of Islam was due to a combination of circumstances, amongst them the hardiness of the Bedouin warriors who formed the core of the early armies and their love of booty; the motivation of a belief in one God; and the fragmented social and belief systems of Islam's enemies.
Contrary to popular belief, the Arab armies did not enforce conversion to Islam at the point of a sword - usually, there was not a choice between conversion and death.
Kennedy writes: "The early Muslim conquests meant the imposition of a new political and religious elite on the lands conquered. The conquest was often followed by a process of settlement in which numbers of Arabs, many from nomad backgrounds, took up residence in the conquered territories, often in specially founded new towns....
"The conversion of the subject people to Islam was a slow and long-drawn out process.... Conquest and settlement took only a decade; conversion of the majority took three hundred years."
The term "conquest" can cover many things, from wholesale slaughter of non-combatants - surprisingly, not very common - to token submission. "Conquest" could mean planting a flag or even making a verbal acknowledgment, on ground which no Arab ever trod - this was particularly important in mountainous areas such as northern Spain, from whence sprang the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Islam was always an evangelistic religion, and from the time Muhammed fled from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hegira, it became more violent. Muhammed had first to defeat his Arabian enemies, among them substantial Christian and Jewish minorities. The history of Islam renders the debate among Christians about the nature of "jihad" meaningless - it could include anything from the "make nice" evangelism so beloved of English churchmen to violent and bloody campaigns of conquest.
The Arabs gave conquered people three choices - convert and join the Muslim faithful; retain your beliefs and pay the extra taxes on non-believers; or oppose the Arab armies (or aid their enemies) and be destroyed.
Many cities simply surrendered; sometimes the new taxes were less than those levied by their Byzantine or Persian overlords. The higher level of taxes levied on non-believers and the eventual requirement that the official elite learn Arabic were amongst the main factors stimulating the subject peoples to convert to Islam.
Conversion to Islam was aided by the fact that it was not a strange faith like Buddhism. Islam recognises both Abraham and Jesus as major prophets, so Jews and Christians could readily understand it. Moreover, Islam is a fairly simple monotheistic faith - there is one Supreme Being, Allah, and Muhammed is his Prophet.
Debate over the nature of Christ and the resulting doctrinal feuds fragmented the Christian enemies of Islam. Often they were more hostile to each other than to the Muslims.
Essentially, the Christian debate centred on the nature of Christ: whether Christ was both fully human and fully divine, the Byzantine position; or wholly divine, the Monophysite or Coptic position. This was especially important in the conquest of Egypt. If anything, the Copts preferred the Arabs to the Greeks, though whether they actively aided the Muslims is debatable.
The Mahgreb - Mediterranean Africa - had been Christian for centuries, numbering amongst its luminaries Saint Augustine of Hippo, the pre-eminent Christian intellectual of his age. After its conquest it was converted to Islam, despite the dreadful suffering inflicted on the Berbers, a numerous and powerful non-Arab group.
This book is a brave and largely successful attempt to fill a gap in the literature about the rise of Islam. While it is not overburdened by endnotes, the bibliography is sufficient to allow further reading by the non-specialist reader, although a glossary would be helpful.