The standard story of the Islamic conquests is that the religious zeal inspired by Muhammad united the poor, backward, desert dwelling Arab tribes into invincible armies that quickly established a unified empire from the rock of Gibraltar to India. Such a view prompts a number of puzzling questions.
- How did a supposedly backward, poor group of nomads form disciplined cohesive armies?
- Why did the Sassanid Empire collapse so quickly?
- Why was the Byzantine response so tepid?
- How did such people manage such a large empire?
There are other questions that come to mind, but the main point is that the traditional story clearly does not make much sense.
Hoyland’s main thesis is that the traditional story is a mythologized one that originates in the writings of Islamic historians two centuries after the events occurred. A good analogy is the fantastic story of Pizzaro’s conquest of the Inca Empire with a few hundred Spanish troops. When the victors write the story, at best it is somewhat sanitized, at worst it verges on fiction.
The key to understanding the Islamic conquest is to realize that the Arabs were not barbarians. They had been living next to, trading with, fighting for and against, Romans, Parthians, and Sassanians, for centuries. They had their own writing system. Many of them were farmers, and some were artisans and traders living in towns.
Hoyland stresses that the Arabs had learned military arts and government organization from the surrounding empires and thus were able to apply them readily during the conquests.
Also, the Arabs were quick to negotiate with local leaders to allow them to remain in power and join the conquests. They also offered tax advantages to those who converted to Islam and joined the armies.
Furthermore, the Byzantines and Sassanids had just fought one of the longest wars in the ancient world (602 to 628) that exhausted both of them but was especially devastating to the losing Sassanids. Add to this the plague outbreaks that began in middle of the 6th century and one can see that neither empire was in a position to effectively fight a new enemy at that time.
Hoyland’s great achievement is to put all of this together to explain the Arab conquests as plausible historical events, rather than miraculous events. Doing so enhances the prestige of the flesh and blood men who made these events happen. Rather than crediting their achievements to divine inspiration, it was the skill, courage, and intelligence of the conquerors that led to such astonishing results.
Hoyland is a good writer. He explains ideas and events clearly and his prose is easy to read. In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire was one of the best history books I have read in quite some time.