Philip Jenkins

Foundation and Empire

The early Arab conquests and the rise of Islam.

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Allowing for these nuances, the primary beneficiaries of the imperial collapse were the Arabs, who were by now thoroughly acquainted with the worlds to their north, and their military tactics. The Arabs also used nomadic forces with their distinctive methods of warfare and transportation, which permitted the rapid extension of control. From the start of the 7th century, "Saracen" bandits were marauding over Syria and Palestine. A contemporary chronicler in 634 paints a horrific picture of the murder and mayhem wrought by "the Arabs of Muhammad" near Gaza in Palestine, as four thousand villagers perished. As Hoyland remarked in his book Seeing Islam As Others Saw It, this appears to be the very first clear reference to Muhammad in a non-Muslim source. If we are to take this account literally, by the way, this suggests that Muhammad himself was leading the invasion, two years after his supposed death.

Quite apart from any religious element, vast Arab conquests were highly likely from the 630s onwards. But of course, these wars are remembered in religious terms, which brings us to the role of Islam. I confess to a certain surprise here, as Hoyland's account of the role of Muhammad and the interpretation of the Qur'an can in a sense be read as surprisingly conservative. Clearly, he knows the interpretations put forward by writers who date the Qur'an much later, and who see early Islam as a Jewish or Christian revivalist movement that only retroactively made its distinctive claims. (He is a pupil of Patricia Crone). We would not guess the existence of such rival theories from the bare bones account of Muhammad that he offers. Hoyland, though, presents Muhammad as one prophetic figure among several, and again, it is only in hindsight that we see that particular aspect of the wider movement as decisive.

Just as an intellectual exercise, I offer a piece of alternative history that might illuminate the religious character of the Arab conquests. From the late 8th century, Norse peoples carried out aggressive raids and conquests across much of Europe and the Atlantic world, and deep into Russia, often establishing political control. These ventures had no religious causation whatever, but, for the sake of argument, let us make believe that these Norsemen included the followers of a charismatic leader with a distinctive spiritual message—let us call it Thorism. They were a minority of the wider movement, but swiftly expanded their influence. Later historians wrote as followers of that early prophet, and created the idea that the Viking movement was a religious holy war, which resulted in the creation of Thorist kingdoms in England, Ireland, Russia, and elsewhere. So was it really a Thorist holy war? For some followers, yes, but certainly not for all, who were rather motivated by the lust for wealth and power. As time went on, though, Thorist religious justifications grew, and were applied retroactively, as if that was the core of the whole phenomenon. That, I would suggest, is how we might imagine the relationship between Arab and Islamic movements.

Hoyland takes his story through the mid-8th century, and the waning of Islamic expansion. The story culminates with the astonishing Battle of Talas in 751, when the Abbasid Caliphate defeated the forces of Tang China in Central Asia. At every stage, he dismantles of the traditional concept of the overnight Arab/Muslim conquest, and he constantly stresses local conditions and rivalries. He also makes important comments about the means by which the Arabs established their power, with little use of terror or persecution. As he shows, by the end of the great conquest era, Muslim Arabs might have composed barely one percent of the subject peoples they ruled, and they drew as much from those subjects as they contributed to them. Ethnic Arabs soon found themselves amidst a wide sea of cultural Arabs, who wished to join the new order for the advantages of tax exemptions and social privilege.

By those means, "the Arabs' local Abrahamic cult from West Arabia" became the heart of a new civilization, and a new world religion. It is a crucial story, which Hoyland tells powerfully.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. His book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade was published earlier this year by HarperOne.

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