Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Great Arab Conquests

Map of the Early Muslim Conquests (The Cambridge History of Islam)

In The Great Arab Conquests, Hugh Kennedy describes and convincingly analyzes the astonishing story of how the Arabs took over the Middle East. Beginning around 630, Arab forces burst initially into Syria and Mesopotamia, and then into Egypt and Persia. By 651, the Arabs had conquered the Persian Empire, which then stretched deep into the "stans" of Central Asia, and they were already pushing into Roman North Africa. Carthage fell in 698, Spain followed after 711. In 751, Arab forces defeated the Chinese in the struggle for Turkestan.

Why were they so successful? Muslims knew, of course, that God was guiding their victories, and many Eastern Christians agreed.

For the large majority of the Syrian and Egyptian Christians who belonged to sects condemned by the Byzantine Empire, the Nestorians and Monophysites, the Arabs were evidently God's scourge in the chastising of the vicious Orthodox regime. Kennedy offers other, more secular, explanations, above all the mutual devastation through which the Byzantine and Persian Empires had so weakened each other over the previous two centuries. And far from being crude barbarians crashing ignorantly into this alien world of civilization, the Arabs had ancient contacts with both Persia and Byzantium. These linkages are suggested by the extensive network of Christian bishoprics and shrines that stretched from southern Iraq deep into the Yemen. (Incidentally, Kennedy's maps are excellent.) The Arab leaders were skilled and worldly-wise, quite sophisticated in the ways of the civilized empires, and they made excellent use of diplomacy as needed. By the end of the book, we are much less inclined to see the Arab conquests as a near-miracle, but rather as something close to a foregone conclusion, and that shift of perception is vastly to the author's credit.

Kennedy summarizes his argument thus: "In the final analysis, the success of the Muslim conquest was a result of the unstable and impoverished nature of the whole post-Roman world into which they came, the hardiness and self-reliance of the Bedouin warriors, and the inspiration and open quality of the new religion of Islam."

Significantly, his very plausible list of factors ends rather than begins with the motivating power of Islam. His book gives no support to those who see the story of Islam as an incessant tale of bloodshed and massacre in the guise of holy warfare, and he is very fair in quoting contemporary observers who saw both the good and bad sides of the new regime. Christian critics easily distinguished between those Arab rulers, like the Caliph Yazid II, who were monstrous tyrants, and the others who were decent and just. The Arabs varied enormously in their treatment of Christians, Jews, and other conquered peoples, and it is hard to generalize over the whole region.

As Kennedy notes, however many people may have disliked the new regime, few moved to active resistance: "The fragmented nature of the response of the conquered was an important reason for the success of the Muslims, both in the initial conquest and in the consolidation of their rule."

read complete article

more on the Four Caliphs here

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