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

by Hugh Kennedy

Da Capo, 421 pages, $27.95

Standing on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in what is modern-day Morocco, the Arab general Uqba must have felt a mixture of exultation and disappointment. In the fifty years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arab armies had subdued a territory stretching from Afghanistan in the east to the Atlas Mountains in the west. But the Atlantic marked the end of the road. It was the greatest”and perhaps only”barrier stopping the armies of Islam. Wading into the surf, Uqba is said to have cried out, “O Lord, if the sea did not stop me, I would go through the lands like Alexander the Great, defending your faith and ­fighting the unbelievers.”

This image, a striking moment in the history of the Islamic conquests, embodies the ambition and zeal of the first generations of Muslims. Their military campaigns were arguably the most dramatic exercise of manifest destiny in world history. The story of how a few undermanned Arab armies established an empire spanning continents in a matter of a century is the subject of Hugh Kennedy’s new book, The Great Arab Conquests . Kennedy, a professor of Arabic in London and one of the most distinguished historians of medieval Islam, begins around the year 630, when Muhammad’s armies fanned out from Medina to begin the conquest of Arabia. Syria and Palestine were taken by 639, Persia by 651, and Spain by 718. By the mid-eighth century, where Kennedy’s book ends, the armies of the Prophet stood at the frontiers of Frankish Gaul and Tang Dynasty China.

Reconstructing the conquests poses significant challenges. Lacunae and contradictions riddle the ancient sources, many of which were written nearly two centuries after the events they describe. Properly interpreting these sources requires some scholarly creativity, not to mention a command of a dozen languages and familiarity with an array of archaeological ­evidence. Fortunately, Kennedy is the ideal historian for the task. The Great Arab Conquests is primarily a study of military history, with each chapter tracing the conquest of a different region. But Kennedy fills the pages with discussion of religion, political culture, and art, unfurling his narrative with aplomb”and a lot of ­excitement.

From the beginning, the central tenet of the Islamic state (the Umma ) was the indivisibility of religious and political power. Unlike the communities of pre-Islamic Arabia, which were organized around tribal loyalties, the Umma was united by a common confession: faith in the one God and his Prophet, Muhammad. Consequently, the Umma professed to transcend ties of kinship. All were welcome to enjoy the protections of the state provided that they embraced the new religion.

In practical terms, this meant that no one could be a Muslim unless he also paid taxes to Medina, the seat of the Umma . The earliest military campaigns aimed to enforce this policy among the recently converted Arabs of the peninsula (the ridda wars). But it did not take long for Muhammad and his successors to turn toward bigger prizes outside Arabia.

The Muslim armies found inspiration in the numerous passages in the Qur’an concerning jihad: “Let those fight in the path of God who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoever fights in the path of God, whether he be killed or be victorious, on him shall We bestow the great reward.” New territories such as Egypt and Syria, rich in agriculture and trade, were a boon for the coffers of Medina, but the hope for eschatological reward also propelled the conquerors. As one Arab soldier told the court of Persia: “If you kill us, we shall enter Paradise; if we kill you, you will enter the fire.” Their divine mandate seemed to all but ensure ­victory.

Despite their small numbers (most armies were close to fifteen thousand men), the Arab forces were unusually effective. The resourcefulness of the Hijazi generals coupled with their hardy Bedouin troops made them a fierce, highly mobile engine of conquest. Kennedy is careful, however, to note the fortuitous timing of the Islamic campaigns. A generation earlier, Persia and Byzantium had fought a brutal twenty-five-year war, leaving both powers reeling and vulnerable. As Kennedy points out, it is difficult to imagine Islam succeeding so spectacularly if Muhammad had set out in the year 600.

The Muslim conquests cast a shadow over a world still tied to the ancient traditions of Julius Caesar and Xerxes. We can hear a quiet eulogy for ancient powers in the Shahnameh , the national epic of Iran, as it describes the last shah of Persia, who spent his final days hiding in a mill. “This is the way of the deceitful world, raising a man up and casting him down. When fortune was with him, his throne was in heaven, and now a mill was his lot. Why should you bind your heart to this world? . . . The only rest you find is that of the grave.” For the Arabs, the success of the conquests signaled divine favor; for the rest of the world, they heralded the end times.

Dramatic rhetoric about the death of civilization, however, was often at odds with the political reality. As Kennedy stresses, the Arabs proved themselves competent, savvy governors. Islamic rule was often based on a continuation of existing practices: In places like Syria and Egypt, Greek remained the language of administration until the 680s, and former Byzantine bureaucrats were ap­pointed to collect taxes and administer public lands. Aside from the upper echelons of the provincial government, which Arab Muslims controlled, the state remained in the hands of local Christian leaders. A quintessential example is that of St. John Damascene, the great theologian, who served as an official of the Umayyad court in Damascus.

On a cultural level, too, conquest was not necessarily synonymous with Arabization. Persia was particularly resistant to the encroachment of foreign influences: “In Iran in 600 nobody spoke Arabic,” Kennedy observes, “and by the twelfth century they still did not.” Arab culture had greater traction in places like Egypt, but even there the postconquest period saw a flowering of Coptic Christian culture unparalleled during the Byzantine period.

In explaining the uneven penetration of the Arab conquests, Kennedy emphasizes that Islam was a religion of the elites. Not until the year 1000 did the conquered territories possess a majority-Muslim population. The early Muslims were too few in number (in Egypt, only one in thirty was Muslim in the decades after the conquest) and too dependent on native, non-Muslim leaders to demand conversion. Instead, individuals tended to convert gradually, often in pursuit of government office, or as a way of avoiding the jizya , the hated poll tax levied on non-Muslims.

In perhaps his most interesting line of inquiry, Kennedy shows that the first conquerors exhibited a surprising degree of religious flexibility. In Damascus, for example, Muslims reportedly used half of the existing cathedral for their prayers. Not until the beginning of the eighth century did they finally raze the cathedral and erect a mosque on the site. Similar tolerance was evident in the former Persian capital of Ctesiphon, where the conquerors converted a portion of the royal palace into a mosque, still adorned with the statues of the ancient shahs.

This flexibility also led the conquerors to accommodate groups that were technically seen as idolatrous, and thus deserving of death. The Qur’an accorded Christians and Jews certain protections as People of the Book, but few other populations in the new Arab territories enjoyed such status. Yet, as Muslim officials interacted with Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Buddhist majorities, they soon extended to them the protected status of dhimmis .

This concession demonstrated a willingness to compromise on matters of faith for political stability. Dhimmitude was a welcome, but far from ideal, alternative to death. By the medieval period, dhimmis were periodically subject to persecution, even massacre. The two-tiered system established during the conquests would lay the groundwork for a “hardening” of Islamic society centuries later, establishing strict boundaries between the Umma and everyone outside the fold.

Kennedy concludes his book with a broad synthesis of the campaigns. He attributes the success of the conquests to several factors that have already been discussed, namely the unified spirit of the Umma , the ideological drive of jihad, the instability of the Byzantine and Persian empires, and the easy terms imposed on the conquered.

In the course of this deftly detailed overview, Kennedy’s only major shortcoming is his hesitation to address explicitly the second part of his title: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in. Fortunately, much in the background of the narrative foreshadows the current state of affairs in Islam. We see the first stirrings of sectarian division in the Iraqi city of Kufa, where resistance to the caliphs in Damascus would eventually give rise to Shi’ite Islam. Meanwhile, far to the west, Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, repulsed an Arab army at Poitiers in 732”a battle that has been regarded as a decisive moment in the formation of a Christian Europe.

When we reflect on the origins of the modern Middle East, we tend to see it through the lens of that later clash of civilizations, the Crusades. The Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries can provide another, perhaps more nuanced heuristic for understanding what roils that part of the world. History charges the language of conflicts: In the past two years, officials of al-Qaeda have referred to its war against Rumieh , the Arabic word for the Roman or Byzantine Empire”striking evidence of how the ­conquests continue to shape the historical imagination of the Islamic world.

Kennedy’s book will likely become a standard account of the conquests for many years to come. But its value is more than just scholarly. In describing an Islam open to”indeed dependent on”other cultures, Kennedy offers a counterexample to today’s all too often insular brand of Islam. The most valuable lessons of the era are not about tyranny and intolerance but about how Islam can effectively navigate a pluralistic world.

Christian C. Sahner is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, studying Islamic and medieval history.

Articles by Christian C. Sahner