“The Great Arab Conquests:
How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In”
Hugh Kennedy, 2007, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia PA
Arab conquests during the period 630 AD to 750 AD resulted in their control a large part of the known world. In 712 AD at the battle of Poitiers, the Arabs reached the gates of Paris before being driven back. This remarkable series of victories were accomplished with relatively small armies (none was larger than 30,000 men) who rode bareback and were lightly armored. They depended upon spear, sword and shield, the element of surprise, and the weakened conditions of the nations they faced. The Arab conquests were quick and world ranging like those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The difference was in how the Arab conquests were “made permanent.” Only two countries ever came back to their previous identify after Arab conquest: Spain and Portugal. This book attempts to understand this subject by addressing two questions: (1) how did the conquests take place; and (2) how were the conquered areas settled by a relatively small number of Arabs and become transformed into “Arab” states.
The author discusses the origin of a unified Arab state under the Prophet Mohammed to describe the development of a conquest strategy based primarily on the Koran but also on the Bedouin and Arab urban culture with its tribal relationships and social systems that valued military might and cohesiveness of the tribal group. The key aspect of Islam that transformed the tribes of Arabia into a potent military and governance forces was the creation of a “brotherhood” of Muslims under Islam. Any person who professed a belief in Allah become a brother regardless of ethnicity, race or nationality. This brotherhood was known as “umma” or the Muslim community. Tribal conflict and in-fighting was overcome with this new brotherhood.
Islam also provided the basic strategic framework for all the conquests. Upon the death of Mohammed, the different tribes of Arabia began to assert their independence. A series of wars, the “ridda” wars, brought all the tribes under Muslim control led by the Quraysh tribe of Mecca allied with Bedouin. 1 According to Kennedy, these wars led directly to the expansion of Arabia since the umma formed by Islam would not allow “brother” to attack “brother.” The unified Arabian tribes under Islam had to take their traditional raiding way of life outside Arabia to neighboring countries. The Koran also sanctioned this in verse 9:5: “When the sacred months are past, kill the idolators wherever you find them, seize them, besiege them, lie in wait for them in every place of ambush; but if they repent, pray regularly and give the alms tax, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and merciful.” This was considered the scriptural mandate for conquests.
As Muslim armies were dispatched to conquering neighboring states, more and more Bedouin arrived in Mecca to join the armies to share in spiritual and worldly rewards of conquest. The Arab armies were relatively small. Syria was conquered by an army of less than 30,000 men, while Iraq was won with only 6,000 to 12,000 men. At the crucial battles of Yarmuk in Syria against Roman forces and Qadisiya in Iraq against the Persians (Sasanians). The apparent advantages of the Muslim armies was mobility (they traveled light and lived off the land), good leadership, and strong motivation (for spoils of war but also spiritual – as witnessed in a Muslim speech to Persian authorities prior to battle, “… now we have come to you by order of our Lord, fighting for his sake … we act upon his orders and seek fulfillment of his promise.”). The author makes a strong case that internal strife and ongoing conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and Persia weakened both empires and allowed Muslim armies an opportunity to attack them.2
In explaining how Muslim rulers governed the conquered lands, the author describes the administrative arrangements made that allowed Muslims to maintain their cultural identity and through Islam convert the local population to a common religious belief as well as language. Apparently key cities were chosen for settlement by Muslims and from these cities an administrative system was established to collect tribute owed by non-Muslims. Incentives were created to convert to Islam but there is no major evidence of forced conversion. The systems put in place were effective in that only Spain and Portugal are the only two countries to revert back to Christianity after Muslim rule.
1) Ridda refers to apostasy and originated in the changing beliefs after Mohammend’s death. At least two other prophets arose in Arabia: (1) Maslama of the Banu Hanifa of Yamama in Eastern Arabia; and (2) Sajah, a prophetess of tribes in north-east Arabia.
2) Byzantine Christian doctrine was different than those of many Christians in Syria (Diophysites vs Monophysites) and there was persecution of the local Christians. Muslim arrival at this critical time found a weakened empire. Bubonic plague was also a serious problem for the city dwelling Syrian population – a disease passed by fleas on rats was more of a problem in the cities than with the Bedouin warriors and their mobile camps (not room or place for rats).
Extend of Muslim Conquests – 750 AD
This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).