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In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the…

In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire

by Robert G. Hoyland

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In God’s Path does not meet expectations

Hoyland is among very few that approach the formation of the Islamic world as unbiased and systematic as one could in a subject matter that is inflamed with superstition and wishful thinking. The author also keeps on broadening his approach.

This book is very easy to read, and it is excellent in the balancing act of not overburdening the reader with an onslaught of foreign names. Hoyland’s style of history telling is outstanding, although it may lack background information for non-expert reader. It is also never polemic and always careful not to offend the academic consensus. It makes a convincing case that the Arab conquests were much slower and spottier than portrayed in the main Muslim narratives, and it is smart in practically leaving Muhammad out of the discussion. Thus, I highly recommend this book for the novice that wants a quick and easy overview of what academia thinks it knows about the emergence of the Islamic Empire. The first few chapters are superb in this respect and could serve as a role model were it not for the way the source material is disclosed. Those that intend to verify the evidence find little assistance. It may just be my personal preference, but footnotes are much easier to use than endnotes, and the author is not always clear about which reference he had actually been using.

But despite its qualities and its position at the cutting edge of Islamic research, the book comes across as intellectually lazy. One would think that consolidating the diverse histories from Spain to China should flush out the inner makings of the Islamic Empire. However, outside of his timespan of expertise, he is perceivably out of his comfort zone, and the history of the Persian Empire comes short. The absorption of Mithraism and (Reform) Zoroastrianism are perhaps critical pieces in the puzzle of understanding the advancement of Islam. This is particularly important since the author tries to make the case that not all Arabs were Muslims and not all Muslims were Arabs.

Academia is not here to make up stuff but to question over again until a solution to a problem is found. Scholars cannot continue to overlook the web of contradictions that derives from contemporary literary evidence, archaeology, and numismatics and pick and choose to fit a preferred story. Even though the author criticizes the traditions, often with a sarcastic undertone, it rather smoothly sails along them, leaving the reader with having learned little new. Of course, this is state of the practice in Middle Eastern academia, but for Hoyland, this is substandard. Big data is on the verge to debunk the traditions altogether, rendering the author’s internal depictions obsolete within the next years.

The book deals with the Arab conquests, largely engaging the reader with the very boundaries of this ‘nation’. The curious is not at all enlightened about the inner ‘making’ of this new empire. The ‘conflicts’ and achievements are mostly reported after a century or more, rendering the author’s narrative mundane at times. Hoyland does not seem to understand the inner mechanisms of religious histories and thus erroneously assumes that later texts are more reliable and less biased.

There are three main issues that undermine this book:
- Isho'yahb III (d. 659 AD) conveys that there are two different ‘Arabs’. It should prompt the researcher to search for the demarcation line, but not a hint of it can be found in Hoyland’s book.
- The traditions can serve to bring forth any version of history that contradict the mainstream view (see an attempt by Deus, 2013 and 2015, for free at academia.org). Yet, the author picks freely from whatever may support his narrative, which thus renders itself circular.
- The ninth century philosopher Al-Kindi and the fourteenth century historian Khaldun provide clues that various histories had been jumbled together in the name of the Abbasids and the Umayyads. Hoyland does not need to take this at face value, but he cannot simply evade it.

One of the aims of Hoyland’s “book has been to peel away the Islamicizing layers in order to better understand the factors that underlay the success of the Arab conquests and the transformative impact that they had on the political, social, and cultural makeup of the Middle East.” The title of the Book suggests an investigation into the religious and political dimensions of the Islamic evolution. Yet, the book hardly touches these explosive topics. With the three main issues just laid out, it seems clear that ignoring them leads to nowhere. For example, one would have to respond to Isho’yahb and take a position when the two ‘Arabs’ fused together – if ever. Researchers cannot pick and choose from what the bishop or other reporters of the time had to say.

The author certainly had access to the evidence and to possible alternative interpretations. For example, I had sent him early drafts of a treatment of the Koran verses in the Dome of the Rock in which it becomes apparent that there is evidence of absence (NOT absence of evidence) of these inscriptions for centuries (Deus 2013, for free on academia.org). If they were indeed absent, the most significant early evidence of Islam falls off. I do not expect Hoyland to accept this but to at least take the evidence seriously and to investigate alternative possibilities.

Also, there is evidence that the Umayyads may have rejected Islam. Before al-Malik, none is ever associated with the ‘Muslims’, and even the traditions would allow for such a case. Again, there is no need for Hoyland to even listen to this, but since the evidence is well known to him, he can no longer just leave it aside and default to the illusions of the traditions (see the three main issues). Any singular or half-baked approach can but disintegrate (including my own primitive attempts). Thus, since Hoyland’s book fails to address these issues that lie at the beginning of the Islamic story, the longer it travels through time, the deeper it sinks into the morass of tradition and speculation. The book also increasingly jumps around the timeline, making it difficult to make out an evolution.

There are a couple of clear breaks in the timeline that would allow to differentiate evidence from before and after these events (the rise of Muawiyah, the breaking through of Islam, and the Umayyad end, to name just three). If one does that, entirely different histories emerge, and they can even be supported by traditions, which threatens to be circular, of course. To be clear, traditions (or religious texts for that matter) are not being produced out of pure imagination. These are elaborate schemes to trick the reader into a familiar framework of ‘true’ history into which the mud is being injected at will. Just because some traditions can be anchored with historic facts does not render the traditions correct. It only confirms the historic facts. It was the intention of the ancient forgers to make believe that their stories were indeed histories.

Researchers do not seem to realize that Islam is the consequence of a long history that goes back to the time of the Messiah Jesus and perhaps beyond. If that path is not cleared of fabrications, the starting point of Islam rests on a void. Likewise, the author’s assumptions rely on Christian traditions that pretend how the world arrived at the seventh century. However, these stories no less bogus than the Muslims’. How else could it be? Sometime after Constantine the Great must lie the point where Western Christian writers aligned themselves with mainstream orthodoxy and injected themselves into the history books. In consequence, they disconnected the path to Islam, which is why the latter appears out of nowhere. This is not how religiously inspired conquests work.

In the end, I would return the work to Hoyland: you can do better than that. ( )
  ajdeus | Oct 6, 2015 |
To counter the almost universal impression that Arab armies swept over the Mediterranean and out to central Asia like a cloud and virtually overnight created an Islamic empire, Robert Hoyland has done yeoman research and presents facts. Using clues from coinage to letters, he has assembled a history that he delivers in bite-sized sections, some military, some religious and some societal.

The first millennium AD was a time of trading religions. Yemen and parts of today’s Caucasus and steppes converted to Judaism. Eastern Romans (Byzantium) converted to Christianity. The Persian Manichean religion was establishing itself, and Buddhism was the religion of the Uighur Turks. The game of the era was to pressure the leader/emperor to convert, and the whole territory would follow. Religions had come and gone for centuries, so this was nothing bizarre.

The entire area was simply never free of war. Invaders and raiders came and went. For decades, parts of the Arab empire still thought this a passing phase like any other, and continued to use the coinage of Byzantium or Persia, as appropriate. Mohammed’s forces took advantage of constant wars between Persia and Byzantium to hive off border areas. He leveraged raiding parties by declaring God automatically granted the victors wealth and slaves. It was all about the money. Mohammed welcomed all comers. Christians and Jews participated as equals. They all believed in the same original God, so technically they were all on the same side. Mohammed’s concept was an inclusive community. It was not till 150 years later that his successors started to officially distinguish among the races and creeds.

Progress was not lightning quick. Battles raged, the Arabs were repulsed numerous times, but also found little real resistance (for example along the north coast of Africa). The empire peaked about 120 years after Mohammed. Governing and consolidation were not factors until later, when it was already decaying. It was really about bringing gold and hundreds of thousands of slaves back to the center. Developing a new civilization was not part of that agenda. Arab conquerors preferred inland cities nearer the deserts and Arabic speaking tribes, so coastal cities did not flourish as inland cities like Damascus, the first capital, and Baghdad, the second.

There seemed to be four main reasons for the empire’s halt and decline:
-Constant (at least three major) civil wars in the first 90 years by tribe, by ideology, plus numerous slave revolts everywhere. The Sunni/Shi’ite rift is just as fierce today.
-In some places, Arab warriors were out of their depth, unable to cope with winter or modern weapons and were not good sailors or swimmers.
-They stretched their limited numbers too far: out of range, unable to call on reinforcements and supplies. And they were the targets of local revolts that required support to be diverted.
-They expended tremendous resources and lost repeatedly, trying to capture Constantinople over a hundred year period. It was their Stalingrad.

Hoyland is scrupulously fair and evenhanded. He lets the evidence speak. This work gives definitive shape to an era known until now by legend and prejudice alone.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Aug 23, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199916365, Hardcover)

In just over a hundred years--from the death of Muhammad in 632 to the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750--the followers of the Prophet swept across the whole of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Their armies threatened states as far afield as the Franks in Western Europe and the Tang Empire in China. The conquered territory was larger than the Roman Empire at its greatest expansion, and it was claimed for the Arabs in roughly half the time. How this collection of Arabian tribes was able to engulf so many empires, states, and armies in such a short period of time is a question that has perplexed historians for centuries. Most recent popular accounts have been based almost solely on the early Muslim sources, which were composed centuries later for the purpose of demonstrating that God had chosen the Arabs as his vehicle for spreading Islam throughout the world.

In this ground-breaking new history, distinguished Middle East expert Robert G. Hoyland assimilates not only the rich biographical and geographical information of the early Muslim sources but also the many non-Arabic sources, contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous with the conquests. The story of the conquests traditionally begins with the revelation of Islam to Muhammad. In God's Path, however, begins with a broad picture of the Late Antique world prior to the Prophet's arrival, a world dominated by the two superpowers of Byzantium and Sasanian Persia, "the two eyes of the world." In between these empires, in western (Saudi) Arabia, emerged a distinct Arab identity, which helped weld its members into a formidable fighting force. The Arabs are the principal actors in this drama yet, as Hoyland shows, the peoples along the edges of Byzantium and Persia--the Khazars, Bulgars, Avars, and Turks--also played important roles in the remaking of the old world order. The new faith propagated by Muhammad and his successors made it possible for many of the conquered peoples to join the Arabs in creating the first Islamic Empire.

Well-paced and accessible, In God's Path presents a pioneering new narrative of one the great transformational periods in all of history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:38 -0400)

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