The sheer speed and scale of the early Islamic conquests following the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 632 CE has captivated the imaginations of historians and writers for centuries. Against the odds, the pioneering Muslim armies from the recently unified Arabian Peninsula took on the two ageing superpowers of antiquity, the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian empires, and spanned the then known world from east to west, reinforcing the firmly held belief that these were divinely-inspired victories.
However, from a secular historical perspective, the explanations are more nuanced, as illustrated by historian and travel writer Justin Marozzi's The Arab Conquests: The spread of Islam and the first caliphates. The author seeks to offer answers for the successes of the early conquests and their legacies, which "represented one of the greatest feats of arms in history and utterly changed the world." In fact, so important were these conquests, says Marozzi, that without them, it is "surely doubtful that Islam would have become a global faith then and the world's fastest-growing religion today."
The book covers the Arab conquests during the Rashidun period of the first four caliphs (632-661 CE), through to the Umayyad dynasty, ending with the Abbasid revolution of 750 CE, bringing an end not only to the Umayyad Empire but also the defining era of the said conquests. Before delving into the subject though, the reader is provided with a brief overview of the Prophet's life, including important military campaigns, which would later serve as both justification and inspiration for subsequent generations of caliphs, sultans "and even twenty-first century caliphate-obsessed jihadists." Nevertheless, the futuhat or Opening of the Holy City of Makkah around 630 CE was technically the first Muslim conquest.
Marozzi makes the compelling case that geography and logic dictated that the Arab conquests were to head northwards, given the absence of a navy and the terrain dominated by desert landscapes in the Arabian Peninsula. This is within the context of the aftermath of the so-called Ridda Wars — Wars of Apostasy — faced by the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who led the nascent community as the Prophet's immediate successor. "The choice was stark," explains Marozzi. "Renewed civil war within the Arabian Peninsula or holy war without." Thus incentivised by both earthly and heavenly rewards, the fledgling community could face external foes, who we learn were themselves plagued by infighting and division, not to mention devastating, decades-long rivalries. The capabilities of many hardy tribesmen added to religious zeal was evidently a potent mix, despite the army possessing "no technological or numerical advantage on the battlefield."
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Contrary to common misconceptions that non-believers were systematically forced to convert to Islam, the author makes an intriguing point that, at least during the early conquests, "conversion to Islam equated to a straight loss of tax revenues as far as the Muslim Arab leaders were concerned." Given the jizya tax levied on non-Muslim subjects, it was arguably more lucrative to allow them to continue to practise their faith as they formed the majority of the empire's population for many years. Furthermore, as Marozzi explains, Islam wasn't as alien to non-Muslims as it may appear to some today; in fact, it was "reassuringly familiar" to seventh-century Middle Eastern and North African populations, particularly in the Byzantine realms who may have initially perceived it as a "Christian heresy" rather than a new religion.
Written in easy, flowing prose, there are chapters focussed on each of the major regions of conquest, including the Levant, Iraq and Iran, and Egypt. The latter was achieved in under two years and today is the world's most populous Arabic-speaking country. Throughout the book, there are spectacular images of well-known Islamic architecture and landscapes. Several photographs appear to be taken from the 1970s and 1980s, so the book is reminiscent of the larger general knowledge hardbacks of that era. These are complemented by fine examples of early Islamic artwork.
Most engaging of all, though, is the chapter headed "We Need To Talk About Muawiya" about the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan. Although he is a controversial and divisive figure for Muslims even today, his impressive political career spanning four decades "remains utterly indispensable to the story of the conquests." Nevertheless, he is virtually unknown in the West compared with his predecessors.
Credited with transforming the caliphate into an Arab kingdom and family business; establishing the very first Muslim navy; and carrying out the audacious, failed siege of Constantinople, Muawiya and the later Umayyad caliphs took the conquests to new heights. After his death, though, the political stability of the empire began to falter with numerous uprisings. These included the fateful Shia-led Hashemite revolt in the far reaches of the Khorosan region in the east, through which the incoming Sunni Abbasid dynasty rode to power, supplanting the Umayyads after seeking to eradicate their family line and ushering in a more cosmopolitan, egalitarian society. The empire became less intrinsically Arab-dominated, with stronger Persian cultural influence.
This is an ideal introduction for the casual reader who wants learn about the early Islamic conquests and the expansion of the caliphate, as it is neither too taxing nor academic in style. Indeed, it is an entertaining and enjoyable read with occasional dry humour. As a result, it lacks depth and the kind of details which one can find in books such as The Arab Kingdom and its Fall, published in 1927 by Julius Wellhausen; The Great Arab Conquests by Sir John Bagot Glubb; and The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner, all of which tend to feature in Islamic history bibliographies. That said, Justin Marozzi provides us with a refreshing and fair retelling of arguably the most important and influential social upheaval of the Middle Ages.
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