Dec. 8, 2014 by Darius
I recently finished The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by British professor and historian Hugh Kennedy. It’s a quite readable account of the first century of Arab conquests, during which Arab armies conquered a space from northern Spain to southern Pakistan.
The Great Arab Conquests supplies a blow-by-blow account of the Arab campaigns. Rather than proceeding chronologically, Kennedy chooses to break out his chapters by region. Of course, chronology is respected—it would have been hard for the Muslims to conquer North Africa without going through Egypt first, for example—but Kennedy’s framework makes it much easier for the reader to keep track of things.
According to Kennedy, who relies mainly on the accounts of the conquests left by both Arabs and non-Arabs, the remarkable speed and breadth of the Arab conquests are due to a variety of interlocking factors. Most broadly, the entire Middle Eastern area seems to have undergone serious demographic decline in the centuries leading up to when the Arab armies burst out of the Arabian Peninsula. Once-great cities, like Alexandria, Carthage, and Merv (in modern Turkmenistan) were already largely uninhabited ruins when the Arabs arrived. Several plagues had swept through Syria, for instance, and the general picture seems to be one of contraction and decline, paving the way for Arab conquests. Specifically, the Arabs’ two greatest unified opponents, the empires of Byzantium and Sasanian Persia, had recently fought a major war. This war was particularly destructive for both sides because it featured massive invasions of Persian armies into Byzantine areas and Byzantine invasions of the Persian heartland. The result of the war was the utter destruction of the Byzantine bureaucracy and presence in Syria and much of the infrastructure of the Sasanian Empire in what is now Iraq and Iran. As a result, when the Arab armies arrived, there was little opposition in the hinterlands of the regions they looked to conquer. Arab armies were victorious in two major battles over the Byzantines and Sasanians, and these sufficed to conquer Syria, Iraq, and Western Iran and paved the way for further conquests.
Kennedy argued that the permanence of the Arab conquests was largely due to the fact that the Arabs made comparatively few demands of the people. The conquerors made almost no effort to convert the subject population to Islam and worked with existing religious authorities. It took more than two centuries for a majority of the people in Iran, for instance, to become Muslim. Taxes were levied, but these were not likely to have been significantly more burdensome than those levied by the previous empires. With a few exceptions, there were no massacres of populations. Large numbers of Arabs ultimately did settled in conquered territories, but they tended to build their own cities—Basra in Iraq and Fustat (now part of Cairo) in Egypt being examples—rather than appropriate existing homes. In any case, the prior demographic decline meant there was plenty of space. Finally, the Arab conquest was not particularly thorough. Their armies did not penetrate the remote hinterlands of North Africa, Iran, and Afghanistan, and many local people might not have even noticed a change in government.
The Great Arab Conquests is a compact, tidy account of one of the greatest and longest-lasting conquests in history. It is not a fast read but would appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of the Middle East.