Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Arabs as Conquerors

Steve Muhlberger

In this lecture I will be looking at what the Arab conquest meant for the people who  were conquered, for the Arabs themselves, and for the development of Islam and Islamic culture.

We are tempted to read back into the past the situation of the Middle East in later times.  We think of the Middle East as an Islamic society, with Arab as the dominant language.  We may be tempted to think of this as the goal of the early Arab conquerors.  But I am sure they never visualized the situation of today, where the entire population of Egypt -- Christian as well as Muslim -- thinks of itself as Arab, or where Persian is, and has been for many centuries, one of the chief vehicles of Islamic culture.

The Arab conquests of the Middle East probably started as an unintended side-effect of the forcible unification of Arabia itself under Muhammed and the first caliph, Abu Bakr.  Arabs had to redirect their warlike energies elsewhere. The Arab conquests probably began with unsanctioned raids by Arab tribes newly incorporated in the Muslim-led confederacy.   Soon enough, the caliph and the leading Muslim community of Medina took control of the process, organized the tribes more or less into armies, and began to plan how they would rule the new areas that were quickly falling under their power.

The guiding principles that the Muslim leadership adopted did not involve the conversion of the world to Islam, and in fact included no systematic effort to convert Christian Arabs, even Christian Arabs already involved in the conquering armies.  Muhammed had laid down in his time a principle of allowing Jewish  and Christian Arabs to live by their own religion, as long as they accepted the leadership of the Muslim community.   This principle was continued by Muhammedís successors outside Arabia.

This was not just a matter of theology.  There was several  practical factors behind it.     The Arabs, though they were now acquiring a great empire, could "blow it" if they handled their position poorly.

All these factors pointed in the same direction.  The Arab conquest might mean the spread of Islam but Arabs and the conquered people would have to be strictly segregated.  The conquered would be left alone to work and pay taxes, the Arabs would become a race of rulers and warriors.

Thus, Arab government over Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Persia was through the existing institutions and even the existing government personnel.  In some areas, the provincial bureaucracy continued to work in its accustomed manner, simply delivering the receipts to a new source.

Further, it meant that the Arabs were regimented.  They were restricted to a very few social roles; their internal social structure was re-organized to meet military needs; and they were only allowed to settle in certain locations.

In the first century of Islam, Arabs outside of  Arabia were only to be soldiers.  They could not settle on the land, or take up any other occupation.   Of course, they had to live somehow.   They were paid a regular salary out of  the tribute collected from the conquered peoples.  To facilitate this process, and make organized military action possible, the old tribes and clans were broken up and re-combined into units that could be easily managed

If Arab society was now militarized  it was also urbanized, concentrated in a few locations where Arabic culture and language, and the developing religion of Islam dominated life.  The Armies into garrison-settlements near but not too near the established urban centers.  Even where Arabs were settled in old towns, they lived in new quarters or suburbs.

It was in these garrison-cities that a new Arab culture quickly evolved.  In them, Arabs, especially former beduins but even Arabs with an urban background, lived a life different than they ever had before.

Indeed, it can be said without much exaggeration that Islam developed in these new cities.  You must recall that when Kufa and the rest were founded, nothing about Islam had yet been written down.  The book of the Qur'an was still in a primarily oral form, and the practices and rulings made by the prophet were still mainly in the memory of those who had known him personally, or had known his close companions.  Islamic law and practice had not been codified, merely sketched out in broad strokes.  There were many issues on which the Islamic position could not be taken for granted.  And since Islam was the sanction and source of Arab power, such questions demanded answers.

There were a number of places where religious questions were debated.  No doubt they were debated in armies on the march; we know that the retinue of the Caliphs in Medina and later Damascus had to be concerned.  But it was in those new cities that what it meant to be a Muslim, and what Islam commanded, was debated by large numbers of individual believers, none of whom had the unquestioned authority to impose his answer on the rest.

 It seems to me that there is  a fruitful comparison to be made between the evolution of Islam in the new Muslim cities and the development of philosophy in the Greek city-states of old.  In both, proud, self-assertive soldier-citizens were able to debate the basic issues of life without the supervision of a priestly class.

Before the first century of the Islamic era was over, the development of the cities themselves was undermining the policy of segregation.   The line between Arab Muslims on one hand and conquered Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Persians was beginning to blur.

One reason is that as the garrison-cities grew, all sorts of people came to live there.  Many of them were not Arabs.   Who would sweep the streets in a garrison-city?  An Arab?  Who would cook?  Who would keep the accounts?  Members of the pre-conquest elite and administrative class were prominent among the inhabitants of the garrison-cities, simply because the sophisticated services they could offer were needed, both by the highest authorities and by individual Arabs.  Such people learned Arabic, took part in the Arabized culture of the town, and even, if they were allowed, converted to Islam.

Another important group were non-Arab soldiers.   As time went on there were more and more of them.   And they posed a particular problem for the Arab regime.  If the world was divided into Arab soldier-rulers and non-Arab taxpayers, where did these people fit in?  If the point of the exercise was extending the rule of Islam (conceived of as the religion of the Arabs) and the subjugation of non-believers to Arab Muslim rule, where did non-Arab soldiers who converted fit in?

Far from converting the world by the sword, the first generations of Arab rulers was extremely reluctant to recognize conversion among non-Arabs, even by soldiers in their own armies.  Converson took one man off the tax-lists and put him on the military payroll.   Yet it was hard to keep them out in the long term.

If non-Arabs were joining the organization, converting to Islam, and living much like the Arab conquerors, the Arabs were also blurring the line by taking up civilian ways and local customs.  It may have been intended that Arabs should always be soldiers, but sooner than anyone thought, Arabs started demobilizing themselves (probably without giving up their military salaries) and taking up civilian occupations, in trade, in the crafts, and in law and administration.  They began to associate with cultured and influential members of the conquered communities, and to pick up their customs.  This was particularly important in Persia and central Asia, where Arabs were relatively few, and the local language was nothing like Arabic.

To sum up, the effect that the Arab conquest  had on the Middle East was, during its first century, quite complicated.  The life of most of the conquered people was not that much affected.  Not only were they not forced to become Muslims, there was an attempt to keep them in their accustomed places in civilian society.  Most of them probably seldom saw an Arab.

For the Arabs, the change was much greater.  As a ruling people, they were richer than before.  They discovered their common characteristics as Arabs as they mixed in their new settlements, settlements that became incubators of both a new pan-Arab culture and of  a Muslim way of life.   But the same cities became the first place where Arab culture and Muslim religion became interesting and accessible to non-Arabs, and where the conquering Arabs found the opportunity to adopt the more attractive aspects of Persian, Syriac, and Greek culture.

If in many ways the Arab conquests had not changed the way of life of most people in the short run, it laid the foundation -- despite all the plans of the Arab leadership -- for a new Middle Eastern culture in which people of many backgrounds would speak Arabic and profess Islam.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.