Book review: In God’s Path by Robert Hoyland

WE’VE been wrong about the Arab conquest of the West for centuries, says Stuart Kelly

The Mediterranean in 720AD: Byzantine possessions in purple and the Caliphates in green

In God’s Path: Arab Conquests And The Creation Of an Islamic Empire

Robert Hoyland

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OUP, 304pp, £18.99

There have been a number of excellent books in recent years re-appraising the “Rise of Islam”; notably Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests, Peter Sarris’s Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible and Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

The traditional view – that a “tsunami” of theologically zealous former nomads erupted out of the barbarian backwater of the Arabian desert, and capitalised on the exhaustion of the two regional superpowers, Christian Byzantium and Sassanian Persia, who had been locked in a cold war for a generation, before sweeping all ahead of them with the scimitar and the Qur’an – is no longer viable.

This view derives from Christian accounts depicting Islam as a divinely appointed scourge, filtered through Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which paralleled the “oriental” attack on Constantinople, with the Vandal and Visigoth attack on Rome in the century beforehand: overblown, lumbering, decadent empires undone by nimble, expedient predators. This “Eurocentrism” has had its day (for one thing, Constantinople stood till 1453: the real scalp of the Arabic invasion of 630 onwards was the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon). But given how crowded this field is, what new insight does Hoyland bring?

A great deal is the short answer. This is a succinct, intelligent guide to the period, alert to nuance and cautious about grand theories.

It also does two almost contradictory things. Hoyland uses the earliest possible sources. One might think this is merely standard practice, but the Islamic sources tend to be much later, and revisionist histories have been skewed by a certain divide between scholars of Islam and Arabic and scholars of early Christianity and late antiquity. History is not always written by the victors, and the early sources – not just Christian and Western – provide interesting confirmations and contradictions.

Many writers comment on the speed of the Arabic conquest, as if startled that some camel-riding converts could topple kingdoms so quickly. Hoyland unpicks this stereotype.

Firstly, the people of the Arabic peninsula were not so utterly sequestered from regional politics. As merchants, they traded with both Persia and Byzantium (and other smaller states); as soldiers they lent support to one or other side as seemed to their best advantage (the Turks, Armenians and Berbers did the same); as people curious about monotheism they clearly had contact with Christian groups both orthodox and heretical (the Qur’an includes a story about the infancy of Jesus only found elsewhere in the earlier Gospel of Thomas).

Secondly, it is not so much the speed but the security of the conquest that is conspicuous. At its greatest extent, around the middle of the 8th century, the Islamic Empire stretched from the Pyrenees to Samarkand, from Yemen to the Caspian and Black Seas. The world’s fifth greatest land empire ever was carved out in a mere 120 years. The Mongols may have conquered more, more quickly, but they assimilated more quickly as well – so of Genghis Khan’s grandchildren, Kublai Khan became Chinese, Chagatai Khan became Iranian, Tolui Khan stayed in the Mongol homeland and Batu Khan and his brothers held territory from Siberia to the Danube. By contrast, after Mu’awaiya became Caliph, keeping territory and keeping the distinctive identity of the “Muslims”, was paramount.

As a unitary empire, it unravelled fairly quickly, with the Umayyad rump in Spain seceding from the Baghdad-centred and Abbasid dynasty rump in 750, and a series of regional defections to local rulers thereafter. That there was only briefly a unified “Dar al-Islam” shows a further irony. The “Abode of Peace” was as multicultural as the “Dar al-Harb” it opposed. The elite of the nascent empire may have been Arabic and Islamic; its new vassals – often secured by tax reliefs, clemency, or subtle negotiations about becoming middle men or spies – were not. One of the first states to convert to the Prophet’s message was the Himyarite Jewish rulership in Yemen: one of the last states in this period to repel the Muslim invasion was the Jewish Khaganate of the Khazars. The troops who took Egypt were as dumbstruck by the feats of engineering they found as would Charles Martel’s troops be when they found among the spoils of the Battle of Poitiers/Tours in 732 Arabic equestrian technology. The 9th century rewrote the complexity of the earlier period, and, as always, lack of ambiguity entailed calcification of opinion.

This kind of book always eschews its embedded nature in contemporary discourse: it’s the facts, man, not a comment on the contemporary cradled in archaism. That is true, but it would be beneficial to everyone if both Muslims and non-Muslims read it, realised their shared history, understood their differences, and appreciated that the stories can always be retold, reinterpreted, revised and reimagined. A Norman knight and a Korean monk can give us insights into Islam; Islamic writing, thinking and behaving can hold up a mirror to the West as well.