Muslim Empire

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, Hugh Kennedy, 2007

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This is an account of the spread of Islam through conquest in the century following the death of Muhammad in 632AD. The resulting empire was far larger than the Roman and was achieved in half the time. The first 30 pages explore the difficulty of doing a history of this period. Many accounts were written two centuries after the fact, are contradictory, and were never intended to capture the kind of details modern historians are interested in. Historians have sorted through the Arab and conquered peoples accounts of battles and generals to come to a rough consensus of the conquests. Most of the book is a summary of this consensus given on a region by region basis of the generals, the size of their forces, the battles and tactics, and the results.

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Kennedy starts with a rough picture of the Arabs as divided into settled town traders and farmers and nomadic Bedouins who over time had developed a symbiotic relationship. The Bedouins relied on the settled Arabs for supplies and luxuries and the settlers relied on the warrior mobile Bedouins for military support and protection. The generals came from the settled and prestigious tribes usually from Medina or Mecca and often of the Quraysh tribe of Muhammad himself. The armies themselves would be made up of a variety of people often speaking several languages. The Bedouins would give these armies a unique mobility and the ability to cross deserts thought by the enemy to be impassible. They could survive in harsh environments and fight at night. Their tenacity and toughness, rather than superior weapons or tactics gave the Muslim armies their advantage.

Kennedy notes that the conquests took place during a time of plague and thinks the taking of slaves was an effort to repopulate badly depleted populations. The lack of resistance to Muslim invasions may have been the effects of plague on a tired remaining population.

As to the success and stability of the empire Kennedy attributes this to the great cultural self confidence of the Arabs given them by Muhammad. Unlike many other empires that relied on Latin or Greek as the official and written language, the Muslims could rely on written and spoken Arabic. On the conversion to Islam Kennedy concludes:

The success of the Muslim conquests was the product of a unique set of circumstances and the preaching of a simple new monotheistic faith. There were many features of Islam that would have made it approachable to Christians and Jews. It had a Prophet, a Holy Book, established forms of prayer, dietary and family laws. Abraham and Jesus were both great prophets in the Muslim tradition. From the very beginning Islam established itself as a new faith, but it was one that claimed to perfect rather than destroy the older monotheistic ones… These similarities, this common tradition, must have aided and encouraged conversion.

Kennedy also points out that the Muslims ruled through a meritocracy where kinship did not automatically result in inherited position. Even enemies, if they converted to Islam and adopted written and spoken Arabic could rise to positions of power and wealth in the new empire. This inclusiveness and openness gave little cause for rebellion and unlike the Roman and Byzantine Empires, rebellion and uprisings almost never occurred.


On the inevitable charge that Muhammad and Islam gave rise to a uniquely warlike jihadist violent culture, Kennedy points out that after an initial pacifist phase of Christianity, the late Roman and Christian Byzantine empires were very warlike and violent.

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On Jerusalem and the temple mount, Kennedy notes that Muhammad received his first divine revelations from Jerusalem making the city central in importance to Islam. The famed temple of Herod was destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish uprising in 70AD and lay in ruins until the Muslim conquest. It was the Christians of Jerusalem who gave the Muslims permission to construct their mosque on the Dome of the Rock.