Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Arab Conquests

Steve Muhlberger

Todayís lecture will try to outline describe the Arab conquests of the 7th century, explain how those conquests happened, and describe the most important effects of those conquests.

One can try to explain the whirlwind conquests of the Roman and Persian empires by focusing on the strength of the conquerors or the weakness of the conquered.

If one looks at the simplest military factors, one can make some arguments for Arab strength that look pretty good. However, empires of the Fertile Crescent had for many centuries usually managed to contain the ferocity of desert raiders.

But the empires were weak in the 620s, very vulnerable to an unexpected challenge.

I know the situation of the Roman empire, the empire of Constantinople, a little better, so let me focus on that.

Up to about 601, the empire had been able to handle  challenges from several directions.  But in that year, there was a civil war, and simultaneous  attacks on both the major frontiers.  Soon most of the empire was occupied.  The Persians occupied the entire empire up to the Bosphorus; their occupation devastated many Roman cities and deprived Constantinople of the resources of  the rich provinces of Syria and Egypt.

The emperor Heraclius, who took over in 610, about the time that Muhammed had his first revelation, was able to reverse these Persian conquests, but it took him years and desperate efforts to do so.   Heraclius victory when it came was dramatic.   The Persian nobles killed their defeated king, and the Persian empire quickly descended into an anarchy that resembled  the state of affairs in the Roman empire before 610.

Heraclius then used his victory to try to enforce religious unity on his restored empire, something that had never been possible before.   He was particularly interested in making the recovered provinces of Syria and Egypt adhere to the religious standards of Constantinople.    (Students might want to ask themselves why, when his empire was so badly damaged by war, H. wanted to do this.)

So, when Abu Bakr sent his armies into the fertile crescent, the Arabs had the good fortune to be attacking one empire weakened by defeat and civil war, and another one damaged by long enemy occupation and distracted by religious controversy.
Thus the Arabs were able to quickly take from each of them their most valuable provinces.

This is an amazing conquest but not a unique one.  It  can be compared to the even swifter conquest that Alexander  and his Macedonians and Greeks had made of the same area a thousand years  before.  The great power of Alexander's time, Achaemenid Persia, was huge  and rich, but the Persian grip on their empire was not very strong.

In the seventh century A.D., both the Romans of Constantinople and  the Sassanian Persians possessed large empires that did not love their  rulers.  In particular, both Persian-ruled Iraq and Roman-ruled Syria were  alienated from the policies that radiated from the capitals. Arab success was made possible by the willingness of  the great mass of the conquered population to make a deal with the Arab  armies, thus ridding themselves of their old imperial masters and making  things much easier for the new ones.   Also, Arab  warriors, settlers and merchants had long penetrated these regions.   When the Arabs of the imperial borderlands found a new focus of loyalty --  a pan-Arab religion -- Syria and Iraq quickly fell to them, and these first  conquests financed the rest.

 Imperial disunity is part of the picture.  The other part is Arab  unity, a unity never seen before.  Like the conquests of Alexander, the  Arab conquests owe much to the inspirational leadership of a single man --  in this case, the prophet Muhammed, who was not actually alive to lead the troops.  But he had given the Arabs a new idea of their place in the cosmic scheme of things.  The later Arab historian al-Tabari tells a story of the prelude to the battle of Badr, when some of the Muslims seemed reluctant to follow Muhammed:

then al-Miqdad b. `Amr stood up and said, "O Messenger of God, carry  on as God has commanded you, and we, by God are with you; we will not say,  as the Children of Israel said to Moses, 'Go thou and thy Lord and fight!   We will sit here,' but we will say 'Go thou and thy Lord and fight!  We  will fight with thee.' By him who sent you with the truth, if you led us to  Bark al-Ghimad (meaning the town in Abyssinia), we would fight with you  against those who stood in our way until you reached it."  The Messenger of  God replied, "Well said!" -- and prayed for blessings for him.
We can easily imagine similar declarations being made in Arab camps at many times during these glory years.

No one can claim that it was only religion that fueled the Arab fighting spirit.  One poet stated straight out that many fought for the bread and dates of  Syria, more than anything else.  But the status of Islam was confirmed by the wonders of these years.
The wonders continued after 650:  The Arabs did not stop when they swallowed the Persian empire whole.  In the east, they continued to the Oxus River in Central Asia, and to the Indus River on the western edge of the Indian subcontinent.  In the west, they took the entire coast of North Africa and Spain.

The Arab conquest of the Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Persia has both  constructive and destructive aspects.

The positive results were the laying of the foundations for a new  Semitic-speaking culture that took in the entire Fertile Crescent and the  two great countries, Iran and Egypt, that bordered it.  This culture,  unified by religion and by the use of a new sacred and literary language,  Arabic, had a great future before it, and is still important in our own  time.   In  future centuries, languages like Syriac and Greek would  lose ground to  one spoken not only by the rulers of society but also by many peasants,  traders, and nomads.   (Iran, where Arabic and Semitic languages were not commonly spoken has always been distinct.)

It was perhaps clearer that the Muslim  Arab advance had gutted two long-established empires and changed the  environment in which Middle Eastern Christians and Jews would live.

Yet at first, it was not clear that the Arabs and their "incorrect beliefs" would be around for the long term.

We can imagine a great Arab conquest of the Middle East in which the Arabs adopted, after a transitional period, the culture and religion of the people they conquered.  This is what happened to the "barbarians" who had occupied the western provinces of Rome in the 5th century.  By the 7th century they were not Romans, but they were all good Catholics, and most Franks and Goths spoke a form of Latin.

But this is not what happened.  The Arabic language and the Arabic religion did not fade away.

Why?  A clear idea of themselves as Godís Chosen People, with a sacred knowledge unique to them, expressed in their own language, and confirmed by their power.

A second factor is that the Arabs quickly created an environment in which they could set the religious and cultural tone.   They founded new  cities in the Fertile Crescent, and at a later date, outside of it.  These settlements became thriving communities in which were concentrated the  loot of some of the oldest and richest countries on earth.
 Once again it is useful to compare the Arab empire to the empire of  Alexander.  Alexander realized that his control of his diverse empire  depended on the establishment of secure bases, from which the countryside  could be taxed and policed.  Therefore he and his successors established  throughout their territories a multitude of Greek city-states, which he  populated with his soldiers, Greek immigrants, and members of the native  populations who were willing to throw in their lot with the new rulers.   These colonial cities made possible the Greek domination of much of the  Middle East for a thousand years.  The Arabs were in much the same  position, and used the same tactics.  To nail down their empire, they had  to plant new Arab communities in strategic places.  And, as in the Greek case, these new communities did the trick.  It was from these Arab cities that a new culture, based on Arabic and Islam, would grow and come to dominate the Middle East.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.