For some reason I couldn’t get through Hugh Kennedy’s book on the first Arab conquests. I think I got bogged down by his use of the 8th century and 9th century historical source material. I found Robert Hoyland’s In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of Islamic Empire less sprawling.
What I liked about In God’s Path is the author’s use of historical source material closer to the events themselves starting in the 7th century, including Byzantine materials. What Hoyland gets at is a more pluralistic account that takes into consideration the larger regional geography, as well as relations between minorities and majorities within the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, as well as within areas under the control of the Islamic movement and empire itself. Of note is the presence of Arab peoples who lived on the outskirts of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires already prior to the conquests. Also of note is the influence of Persian culture on the emergence of Islam, which Hoyland suggests as one factor that maintained Islam as a form distinct from Byzantine Christianity.
In a chapter entitled “The Great Leap Forward,” we are introduced to Abd al-Maliki (r.685-705), who struck me as the most interesting Ummayad caliph. It was under his reign that Islam as a religious system is entrenched politically and culturally, perhaps even visually. Examples include the privileging of Arabic, the creation of a common coinage, the mingling of Arab and non-Arab peoples, his devising of the creed “There is no god but Allah and Muhammed is His messenger” and placing this and other Quranic slogans on monumental buildings, public documents and coin as well as milestones and glass weights. This kind of theological-political display would include the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with its own scriptural challenges emblazoned on the outside of the building as an assertion of political and religious power vis-à-vis Christianity.
Regarding political philosophy, I was struck by the larger theological and political developments that come, in Hoyland’s telling, after the initial political leadership of the movement passed from the Prophet’s four companions (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) over to the Ummayad Caliphate in Damascus. It’s under the Ummayads that we begin to see not just the emergence of Islam as a state religion but a fissure between the political leadership represented by the caliphs and the religious scholars represented by the ulema. Arguments revolved around the nature (or cessation) of prophecy and over the authority to legislate new law. It’s already now, in opposition to Ummayad rule, that we begin to see what Hoyland calls an “Islamized version of history” that is taught still to this day, i.e. the idea of a Golden Age during the time of the Prophet and the rule by his companions when Islam was perfected and its norms properly established.
Historically, I have no way to assess any of these claims by Hoyland. I’m left to rely both upon him along with a colleague-friend who recommended the book and whose scholarly expertise and judgement I respect and admire. As a scholar of modern Jewish thought, all that I can do is read for a world-picture that makes intuitive sense, including sympathy and color, and a non-idealizing approach to conflict, social tension, and attempts at their resolution.