Several factors need to be put back into the standard account of the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, says Robert Hoyland in his forthcoming In God’s Path.

The first is process. Speed plays such a large role in the standard accounts that we miss the variability, and the variability of pace, in the conquests. The second is to restore the voices of the vanquished and of the conquerors who were not Muslims. Muslim histories suppress or marginalize pre- and non-Muslim voices, but these are often the only sources we have for the period before the Arabic conquests. 

Another thing Hoyland wants to restore is context. The Arab conquests might have in some ways caused the retreat of Byzantium and Persia, but the opposite is perhaps more true: The decline of these powers, who had been at odds for some centuries, opened up the possibility for Arabs to seize territory and power. In fact, both Byzantium and Persia used Arab tribes in their wars, thus helping to inculcate the very military skills that were later turned against them.

Part of the pre-conquest context is the spread of Christianity. As Philip Jenkins emphasized in The Lost History of Christianity, Christianity flourished in the east: “By the mid-seventh century there were twenty Christian dioceses east of the river Oxus, including Samarkand and Kashgar. One can observe a similar process in Arabia. As early as the mid-fourth century emissaries were being sent from Constantinople ‘to persuade the ruler of the people (of Himyar) to become Christian and to give up the deceits of heathenism,’ and this momentum was sustained via Byzantium’s Christian ally in the region, Ethiopia. The church in the Persian realm was very dynamic and established offshoots in all the islands and coastlands of east Arabia in this period, and Christian missionaries were active in all the frontier zones of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and north Arabia. The tribal folk of these latter regions are portrayed as accepting the new faith as a result of the power of the Christian God, made manifest by the miraculous deeds of various holy men. By their transition from paganism to “true belief ” the tribesmen were considered to have entered the civilised fold: ‘Those who were formerly called the wolves of Arabia became members of the spiritual flock of Christ.’”

He also wants to disabuse Western readers of the image of Arabia presented in popular histories, novels, and film. Not all Arabs were nomads: “Arabia has harboured a number of very different peoples, some of which did not define themselves as Arabs, and some of which possessed advanced and complex cultures.” 

The result is an illuminating, richly detailed, highly readable study of one of the crucial periods of history.

More on: Islam, Middle East

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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