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Arab conquests

For the glory of Allah

Jul 5th 2007
From The Economist print edition


The Khalili Family Trust


The Khalili Family Trust


The early followers of the Prophet owed their astounding success in spreading the faith to intelligence and restraint as well as to zeal


The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In
By Hugh Kennedy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 421 pages; £25. To be published in America by Da Capo Press in September

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AN AGGRESSIVE Bedouin horde, drunk on religion, sweeps out of the Arabian peninsula—on the way burning the great library of Alexandria—and, through wholesale massacre and forced conversion, imposes Islam on a vast area stretching from Spain to the fringes of China. If this is your mental picture of the rise of Islam, dimly remembered from some long-ago history lesson, take note: it is in almost every respect wrong.

Hugh Kennedy sets out to explain an historical puzzle. How could Arab forces, relatively small in number and with no particular superiority in weaponry, have pulled off such an apparently impossible feat? In the century that followed the death of the Prophet in 632, they challenged two established empires (the Byzantine and Sasanian). They conquered Syria in eight years, Iraq in seven, Egypt in a mere two and Spain and Portugal in five. At the same time, they pushed deep into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. How did they do it? Why did they not meet stronger and more sustained resistance? And, no less of a mystery, how did the empire they created endure?

By painstakingly reconstructing the series of Arab conquests, Mr Kennedy paints a picture strikingly at odds with the popular clichés. "The Muslim conquests", he writes, "were far from being the outpouring of an unruly horde of nomads." The Bedouin of Arabia were tough and highly mobile, fired by tribal honour and love of booty as well as by zeal for Islam. They were led by intelligent men from the Meccan elite who knew they had to channel the "frenetic military energies of the Bedouin" outwards, or else face a real risk of implosion.

These leaders also seem to have grasped that to have based their conquests on mass killings and conversion by the sword would have been a fatal mistake. There were massacres, but they were not the norm. If conquered peoples paid tribute and did not make trouble, they were largely left alone.

Local people were incorporated into the new administrative class. Existing religions—Christianity in Syria and Egypt, Zoroastrianism in Persian-ruled areas, Hinduism and Buddhism farther east—were not persecuted. Large-scale conversions came much later; at the time there was little or no pressure on the conquered people to convert. As for the sack of the Alexandrian library, that, says Mr Kennedy, is a discredited myth.

The Arabs were also lucky in their timing. Mr Kennedy speculates that, had they got going a generation earlier, success would probably have eluded them. As it was, disarray within the Byzantine and Sasanian empires helps to explain why the Arabs met little serious resistance there.

But this was not everywhere the case. The early Muslim armies met their fiercest opposition from the Turks of Central Asia. And, on the other side of their empire, they conquered the Berbers of North Africa but alienated them through the brutalities of the slave trade, which sparked the great Berber rebellion of 741.

Mr Kennedy tells a remarkable tale with skill and authority. Perhaps occasionally he is too much the conscientious professional historian. The general reader must get used to constant cautions ("As usual the actual course of the campaign is confused"). But there is an important point here. The historical sources are confused and contradictory, sometimes written long after the events they describe.

Besides, as so often, history is written by the victors. Arab accounts are full of self-serving bravado, eulogising the virtues of the simple, egalitarian Bedouin in contrast to their elitist and effeminate Persian foes. Mr Kennedy uses Arabic sources, but critically, and tries to balance them by giving voice to the conquered.

The book's subtitle ("How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In") is not directly addressed. Perhaps Mr Kennedy and his publisher thought its truth to be self-evident. The Arab conquests dramatically transformed the world in which they took place. But for today the lesson is different. It is the loss of that early power that torments Muslim hearts and minds, producing anger, humiliation—and eventually the vengeance of al-Qaeda.

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In.
By Hugh Kennedy.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 421 pages; £25. To be published in America by Da Capo Press in September


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