The Great Arab Conquests, initial thoughts


The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, by Hugh Kennedy

In the introduction to Kennedy’s book, the author contends that we can really know almost nothing about the first century of Islam, because the data is sparse and mostly anecdotal, but the material we do have is precious, mainly in how it reveals the official story of what happened from the perspective of a later time.  Differing attitudes, habits, and values between the conquering Arabs and their neighbors are not discussed in any formal treatises, but rather in the narrative stories of the period.

The following story quoted from from Ibn Abd al-Hakam’s History of the Conquests is revealing. The Umayyad governor of Egypt, Abd al-Aziz (governor 686-704) visited Alexandria, and asked to meet any surviving eye witnesses of the conquest. One aged Byzantine was found who had been a child at the time Alexandria fell. The son of a Byzantine patrician had invited him to ride out to view the enemy encampment. The patrician’s son dressed in full royal splendor and a decorated sword, rode a plump, sleek horse, while this friend had a wiry pony. Standing of a hill viewing the army below, they were amazed at the army’s poverty and lack of equipment. Suddenly a man emerged from a tent nearby, and upon seeing them leaped on his horse bareback, grabbed a spear stuck into the ground and came in pursuit. Both boys fled, but the patrician’s son was killed while the storyteller narrowly escaped into the city.

The Bedouin fighter turned back, never stopping to look at the corpse or strip it of valuables. He left reciting what must have been the Koran. As seen from the walls of the city, he went back directly to his tent. This ancient historian says nothing about military strategy, deployment, or any details we like to know. This trivial incident is the only report Ibn Abd al-Hakam makes about the conquest of Alexandria, which marked the end of Greek dominance in Alexandria. For this culture, a good story was far more important than history.

This story stresses familiar themes in the conqueror’s opinion of the Byzantines.”The Byzantines are wealthy and complacent, unused to the rigours of warfare. Furthermore the text shows sharp divisions of class and wealth between the son of the patrician and the narrator. The Arab, by contrast lives a life of privation and austerity in his tent. Unlike the upper-class Byzantine he is an excellent horseman, having a close and affectionate relationship with his mount and being able to leap on to it and ride bareback. He is also, of course, a skilled and hardened spearsman. After the death of the patrician, he shows his religious zeal by reciting the Koran and his lack of concern for material goods by not stopping to strip the corpse of his victim. The governor’s concluding question about the appearance of the man allows the narrator to describe a small, wiry, ill-favored individual. In a way, this is a surprisingly unflattering portrait, but it too makes a point; the man is described as typically Yemeni. Most of the Arabs who conquered Egypt were of Yemeni or south Arabian origin. The governor, in contrast, came from the tribe of Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet himself, a much more aristocratic lineage.”

Whatever really happened in this pericope, the story preserves and possibly invents whatever elements are most flattering to the people in power. Early in the Caliphate, a family could receive financial benefits from the government if it could show that one of the ancestors made a worthwhile contribution to the early conquests and establishment of Islamic government. Tracing one’s ancestry to someone close to Muhammad could be financially profitable and was at least socially respectable.

In a culture with such a rich story telling literary tradition, it becomes clear that a good story could be financially profitable. Today one can find Muslims all over the world who claim ancestry from Muhammad. The stories of the New Testament, however, in the early days were rewarded not with earthly treasure, but with imprisonment and death. Which stories do you find most believable?

In most of the world, lying, cheating, and stealing are sinful only if one is caught and shameful only if the deed is known. Vishal Mangalwadi, an Indian Christian philosopher, writer, lecturer, and social reformer from Allahabad University, once told his story of shock when visiting a Dutch farm as a young man. His host in the village invited him to walk to a nearby farm to buy some milk. Upon arriving they found the farmer gone. “Never mind,” said his host, who then placed the money in a container, reached into the cooler, and took out the milk.

This could never happen in my country, Vishal said.  Left unattended, the milk would all disappear in a matter of hours and any money found in the money box would be gone too.  In most of the world, a clerk is required to watch the money, an accountant required to watch the clerk, a government agent required to watch the accountant, and somehow divine justice may possibly watch the government, or may possibly not. The village of the Dutch farmer is a rare exception to the rule. Might the gospel tradition have had something to do with this kind of exception? The world has many stories, but not all are true. When truth is honored for its own sake above personal advantage, we are set free. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”


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