Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In God's Path by Robert G. Hoyland (Book Review #20 of 2016)



In God's Path  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire Robert G. Hoyland

In an effort to greater understand the history of Islam and the Middle East, I worked through several books and concluded with some of the most recent books on Islamic reform and the rise of ISIS (many reviews forthcoming). In God's Path most closely resembles Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword as well as the first half of Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted. I've also read Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam, but Aslan crafts his story far too selectively from history in the years this book covers. Other books that assisted my understanding of this book are Albert Rouhani's History of the Arab Peoples, the surprisingly helpful Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Ruthven, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Cook, The Cambridge History of Turkey Vol. 1, and Justinian's Flea for the immediately preceding context up to 565 AD. I also used to live in Azerbaijan which was at an important geographic crossroads of much of the history in this book.

In God's Path is a lightning read, as it is a amazing how quickly nomadic tribes from the Middle East were able to subdue so many lands and peoples in just a couple centuries' time. Hoyland embraces the challenge of examining the scant literary evidence from the time period of 600-800 AD that Islam fanned out across the globe. He gives credence to 7th and 8th century sources as opposed to earlier texts, irregardless of their religious source. Christian texts of the period writing fearfully of Islamic invaders (ie: biased) still have value in dating events into a timeline. Hoyland does not focus much on religious development, except toward the end when Muslims began to write down and codify Islam. Instead he focuses on the battles and the characteristics of the tribal organizations that allowed for the most rapid expansion of an empire since Alexander the Great.

Beginning in the 630s, Hoyland examines the context in which Muhammed the Prophet arose. The Persian Empire had dreams of success over the collapsing Byzantine empire after the time and treaties of Justinian in the 550s. Plague and division had greatly weakened the Byzantine Empire. From 602-628 the Sassanids had pushed back in the Levant and Anatolia, forcing a seige of Constantinople in 626 before Turks in the area actually helped defend the area from the Persian-Avar attack in 627. A Byzantine resurgence and Sassanid civil strife eventually pushed the Sassanids out of their territories in Persia and Jerusalem. The Sassanids were in a weakened state to face a new threat of united tribes of Arab warriors.

The first period is the time before 600 to 640. The author points out that contrary to sterotype, Arabs are/were not all monolithically nomads, some controlled and inhabited cities alongside other peoples, like Jews. There were already a lot of battles around 610 AD between Arab tribes and Persians, Muhammed's own tribe was only one of many attacking Sassanids in both Persia and the west around 625-630, though the details are "lost to history." Muhammed's rise is dealt with rather quickly. He is opposed at Mecca in 622, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, forms an army in Medina, takes Mecca through both battle and marriage, uniting tribes into an impressive force capable of subduing other tribes of Arabic speakers and leading them to conquest. After Muhammed's death, the conquest of Palestine continued under the Rashidun Caliphate, for which Abu Bakr had laid down rules of war from Muhammed's teaching. Actual historical details of battles are not many, but in the 634 Battle of Ajnadayn, Muslim warriors from many united-but-rivalrous tribes outfought Byzantines. A monk in Jerusalem in 634 is recorded as calling for repentance in his city because the "Saracens," the Greco-Roman term for Arabs, were ravaging the area. In 636, the Rashidun Caliph's army defeated the Sassanids at Basra. There were definitely raids, if not battles, throughout Arabia. In 636, perhaps weakened by plague and doubtless out-generaled, the Byzantine force lost the Battle of Yarmouk, and with it Palestine and the Levant, a major blow. Syria, Damascus, and Antioch were written off by the retreating Byzantines. Gaza and Palestine eventually became fully occupied in 637. Historic accounts of the 636-637 seige of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar's forces are "murky." The Byzantines apparently surrendered without a fight. Jews had been both slaughtered and marginalized by the Byzantines, so some welcomed the Arab forces as liberators, as did some Christians-- who increasingly joined the Muslim conquerers for various reasons. Muslims granted freedom to Jews and Christians to practice, although there were varieties to policies in various territories depending on who was in charge fo the area. Conversian was often optional, and large populations of ethnic Christians were left alone provided they did not pose a threat. Later 9th century Muslim scholars adopted a view of spreading Islam by uniting all Arabs under Islam, but in the 7th century there was quite a bit of variety and not everyone in the marauding armies was Muslim.

The next major period is 640-652 AD. In 643, the Christian John of Nikiu chronicled conquest of Egypt by Amr ibn al-Aas, which took only two years. John apparently wrote that the Muslims were harsh on the populace, particular with taxation, but left churches and church property untouched.  (His is a chronicle I'd like to read.) Like other Christian writers of the time, John saw the Muslim conquests as God's judgement on apostate Christians (his church itself was considered un-orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon).

Hoyland then quickly moves to the conquest of Libya and then Iran. Iran had claims on the Caucauses lands since 428 AD, but the Arab tribes moved quickly. (Today, the peoples of the North Caucases are largely Sunni whereas Azerbaijan itself is Shi'ia from later Persian occupation of the land south of the mountains.) In 640, the Arabs had invaded Armenia and were able to set up a buffer zone with Byzantium in Anatolia. History records that the choices facing non-Muslims were not "just submit or be killed in battle" but that a wide range of remedies were applied, the Arab conquerers were often outnumbered by Christians and others, after all. Some were given deals exempting them from taxes upon conversion, which led to quite a few converts-- and quite a few angry converts when those privileges were later taken away once the conquest had roughly ended and the focus switched to governing. Christians still made up the majority in Damascus, its walls were left intact. Many simply thought the Arabic occupation was a thing that would quickly pass at any rate.

While Hoyland does not go into nearly as much detail and speculation as does Holland, he does note that "the Arabic 'Bismillah' is an exact translation of the Greek en onomati tou theou ("in the name of God", p. 101). He notes a papyrus written in Greek and Arabic from 643 AD, the first document we have written in Arabic, which adopts many Greek terms and cutural forms of the area (some of which also come from Syriac). This suggests that there was already a similar Arabic "administrative tradition" as was found in Byzantine areas and that there was already a familiarity among both the conquered and the conquerers in culture, administration, and religion, such as that it may not have been a radically big deal for these groups to be under Arab control. Hoyland writes that we should refer to the conquerers as "muhajirun," whose message was "to conquer and settle" which was part of the appealing message for their recruits (p. 102).

Chapter 4 covers 652 to 685, beginning with the movement toward Constaninople. An Arab fleet sent to blockade the Bosphorous was "miraculously" (to the inhabitants) wiped out by a storm in 654. The Arabs were later able to blockade Constantinople from 668-669. Meanwhile, Arab differences resulted in civil war, allowing Christians a chance to regroup; Armenia restored its ties with Byzantium in 656. From 656-661, there was the first "Arab civil war" (chronicled well by Holland) which resulted in the Umayyads supplanting the Rashidun caliphs. There was increasing debate about who had the right of succession. Arab conquests had reached into what is now Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Hasan ibn Ali submitted to the Ummayads to keep the peace.

Chapter 5, "The Great Leap Forward," covers the Berber-Arab conquest of Spain and an increasing shift toward actual governance circa 685-715. Caliph Abd Al-Malik is credited with the minting the shahada onto coins. Arabs were outnumbered 100 to one in non-Arab territories, so Islam and Arab cultured tended to be absorbed over time, with syncretism common in territories like the Caucasus. The line between ethnic and cultural Arabs became quite blurred. Hoyland writes that conversion became more common in Al-Malik's reign, and the Arab practice of enslavement encouraged conversion to gain more favorable treatment and potential freedom. At the frontiers of the Islamic state, deals were increasingly worked out which encouraged syncretism in order to get local subjugation.

In 703, Armenians revolted against the Arabs in what is now Naxchivan, and between 715-730 there was further "retrenchment and revolt." There is very little about Arab battle tactics or technology during this period and in 732 Arabs gained full control over what is now Azerbaijan. Armenia and Georgia were largely left alone and maintained their Christian heritage, whereas (Caucasian) Albania was not and did not. As the Arabs increased codification of Islam, the practice of Islam as the state religion became codified and minority religions were held protected but subservient. Alms-giving became mandatory around 730 AD. Arab Muslims, interestingly, paid lower taxes than non-Arabs but all were taxed. Initially, exemption from poll taxes encouraged local converts, but when fiscal needs led to repeal of this exemption the local populations across the territory would revolt.

We may often forget that there was no organized clergy or system of religion yet in the 8th century, most people who were writing down sayings of Muhammad or chronicling events were amateurs with other jobs. But Arabic becoming the new lingua-franca uniting the region from North Africa to the Central Asian steppe led to the intellectual boom in the 9th century as trade increased and Greek works were quickly translated into Arabic and disseminated. There were distinct differences between "Gentile Islam" and Arab Islam. While some aspects of codified Islamic law were already present early on, in many cases some local laws were incorporated. Some laws which were rejected were later claimed to have been explicitly rejected by Muhammed. The early civil wars were covered over by later Islamic history, and later scholars overrode the earlier. Only the Caliph ruling from 632-660 had the ability to truly legislate, after that the canon was closed.

The author concludes with thoughts on the success of the spread of the Islam empire, crediting it ultimately with the recruitment of nomads under one central ruler that made it effective. (My own thoughts): In that sense, it is no different than the Mongol invasions from the East-- a centralized command structure over a highly mobile force encountering other tribes and people who were weakened by divisions and plague, and in some cases eager to cast off the yoke of their current rulers. Perhaps unlike the Mongols, Arabs allowed for some tolerance and self-governance, and actually focused on building in place rather than simply extracting resources. It was only later when exclusive and extractive institutions were built, leading to the inevitable decline of the empire. Other books in the list at the top of this post deal more with the decline and psychological effects, Hoylands work deals purely with the rapid expansion. A solid four-star work.

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