Monday, July 30, 2007

Arab Conquests Revisited

The Economist has a review of a new book by Hugh Kennedy. Strangely, the theme of his book reflects the Introduction of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which describes how the Semitic heartland of the Arabian peninsula has periodically over millenia welled over with an outpouring of military fanatics who conquered Mesopotamia and Syria. In 1800, the Saudi-led Ikhwan were at the gates of Baghdad and Damascus and were only defeated by Muhammed Ali who invaded Arabia and destroyed the Saudi capital of Riyadh in around 1811. In the 1920s, the Ikhwan led by Prince Faisal conquered Yemen and annexed most of Yemen in the Treaty of Taif in 1930. Ever since Sargon led his Semitic-speaking Akkadian hordes out of the peninsula in 2300 BC to conquer Sumerian city-states, the pattern has repeated itself again and again. Here is a summary of Hugh Kennedy's version:
An aggressive Bedouin horde, drunk on religion, sweeps out of the Arabian peninsula—on the way burning the great library of Alexandria—and, through wholesale massacre and forced conversion, imposes Islam on a vast area stretching from Spain to the fringes of China. If this is your mental picture of the rise of Islam, dimly remembered from some long-ago history lesson, take note: it is in almost every respect wrong.

Hugh Kennedy sets out to explain an historical puzzle. How could Arab forces, relatively small in number and with no particular superiority in weaponry, have pulled off such an apparently impossible feat? In the century that followed the death of the Prophet in 632, they challenged two established empires (the Byzantine and Sasanian). They conquered Syria in eight years, Iraq in seven, Egypt in a mere two and Spain and Portugal in five. At the same time, they pushed deep into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. How did they do it? Why did they not meet stronger and more sustained resistance? And, no less of a mystery, how did the empire they created endure?

By painstakingly reconstructing the series of Arab conquests, Mr Kennedy paints a picture strikingly at odds with the popular clich├ęs. “The Muslim conquests”, he writes, “were far from being the outpouring of an unruly horde of nomads.” The Bedouin of Arabia were tough and highly mobile, fired by tribal honor and love of booty as well as by zeal for Islam. They were led by intelligent men from the Meccan elite who knew they had to channel the "frenetic military energies of the Bedouin" outwards, or else face a real risk of implosion.

These leaders also seem to have grasped that to have based their conquests on mass killings and conversion by the sword would have been a fatal mistake. There were massacres, but they were not the norm. If conquered peoples paid tribute and did not make trouble, they were largely left alone.

Local people were incorporated into the new administrative class. Existing religions—Christianity in Syria and Egypt, Zoroastrianism in Persian-ruled areas, Hinduism and Buddhism farther east—were not persecuted. Large-scale conversions came much later; at the time there was little or no pressure on the conquered people to convert. As for the sack of the Alexandrian library, that, says Mr Kennedy, is a discredited myth.

The Arabs were also lucky in their timing. Mr Kennedy speculates that, had they got going a generation earlier, success would probably have eluded them. As it was, disarray within the Byzantine and Sasanian empires helps to explain why the Arabs met little serious resistance there.

But this was not everywhere the case. The early Muslim armies met their fiercest opposition from the Turks of Central Asia. And, on the other side of their empire, they conquered the Berbers of North Africa but alienated them through the brutalities of the slave trade, which sparked the great Berber rebellion of 741.

Mr Kennedy tells a remarkable tale with skill and authority. Perhaps occasionally he is too much the conscientious professional historian. The general reader must get used to constant cautions (“As usual the actual course of the campaign is confused”). But there is an important point here. The historical sources are confused and contradictory, sometimes written long after the events they describe.

Besides, as so often, history is written by the victors. Arab accounts are full of self-serving bravado, eulogising the virtues of the simple, egalitarian Bedouin in contrast to their elitist and effeminate Persian foes. Mr Kennedy uses Arabic sources, but critically, and tries to balance them by giving voice to the conquered.

The book's subtitle (“How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In”) is not directly addressed. Perhaps Mr Kennedy and his publisher thought its truth to be self-evident. The Arab conquests dramatically transformed the world in which they took place. But for today the lesson is different. It is the loss of that early power that torments Muslim hearts and minds, producing anger, humiliation—and eventually the vengeance of al-Qaeda.

The most recent uprising was in the early '30s when the Ikhwan after their Yemeni victory began attacking Kuwait and the Al-Hasa oasis to cleanse the evil Shi'ites from the Holy Land of Arabia, but King Abdul-Aziz [known also as Ibn Saud] led his army in one last campaign to suppress the Ikhwan and institute the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda is a remnant of the 1930Saudi conquest of Yemen, the 9/11 "Saudi" component of 15 hijackers were about 75% Yemeni in heritage carrying Saudi passports. Osama bin Laden is distantly descended from Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonians after they were chased out of Babylon by Assyrian military might around 600 BC and settled in the southern part of Yemen, whence they parlayed their considerable merchant and other skills into the Himyaritic kingdoms and far-flung trade empires of Zanzibar and Indonesia. Julius Caesar was getting ready for a trip to Yanbu in 44BC to conquer Felix Arabia's rich Yemeni kingdoms when he was assassinated by Brutus and the gang.

I'm sure Hugh doesn't touch on these extraneous topics. The rich tapestry of Middle Eastern history is not confined to the Islamic world. The Jahaliyya that preceded it was most interesting, as Maxim Rodinson in his Marxist treatise on Mohammed displays with impressive scholarship and shaky ideology.

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