Between 634 and 750 AD, Arabs created an empire larger than those of Alexander the Great or Rome, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. This global turning point is brilliantly narrated by Justin Marozzi in his latest book, with over 100 illustrations. A suitable successor to Marozzi’s previous works on Tamerlane, Islamic Cities and Baghdad, it is written with similar erudition and panache, although readers may be mystified by his comparison of Umayyad palaces with Playboy mansions.
Tribesmen without technical advantages defeated larger and better organised Roman and Persian armies, which had controlled the Middle East for centuries. In addition, Arabs introduced a new language and alphabet, and a demanding new religion: the annual Ramadan fast, which includes prohibition of drinking water, is ill-suited to one of the hottest regions in the world.
Zeal for Islam and martyrdom, good generals, and Romans’ and Persians’ exhaustion after centuries of conflict, are Marozzi’s explanations for the Arabs’ success. Their empire was created by what contemporaries called “fearful and incurable conquests” and “great slaughter”. Marozzi quotes Amir ibn al-Tufayl, a contemporary of Muhammad, who compared his armies to wolves falling on sheep: “We cut them in pieces until they were destroyed.” Arabs brought “the sword, famine and captivity” to Spain, according to a Christian chronicler. Gibbon wrote that “the history of empires is the history of human misery”, and this is no less true of the Arab empire than it is of the Spanish or British empires. Europeans have no monopoly of imperialism or slavery.
In some areas, however, Arab conquerors used gentler methods. They could be more tolerant than Christian Roman Emperors of eastern Christians such as Nestorians or Copts. The people of Homs, and other Syrian cities, said: “We like your rule and justice far better than the state of oppression and tyranny in which we were.” Jerusalem avoided destruction in 637 by a personal agreement between the Caliph Omar and the Patriarch Sophronius: “Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims or destroyed… they will not be forcibly converted.”
Partly due to Muslims’ reverence for Jesus, the Prophet of Islam and desire for the benefits of Christian pilgrimages, Christian worship in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth has continued ever since. Elsewhere, “sharing arrangements” let Muslims pray in churches until mosques had been constructed.
History is not always written by the victors, and Justin Marozzi also uses Christian sources. The Coptic Bishop John of Nikiu wrote that during the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, while many inhabitants fled to Alexandria, others “began to help the Muslims” or converted. A Nestorian bishop praised Muslims who “protect our faith, respect our priests and saints and offer gifts to our monasteries”. Moreover – and this is a crucial difference with other empires, explaining the diversity which formerly distinguished the region – they allowed “everyone to live as they wanted”.
Some cities in Syria reverted to the names they had used before conquest by Alexander the Great, suggesting that the intervening millennium had been an interlude: in Marozzi’s phrase, they “returned to the Semitic fold”. Switching from West to East, Aleppo dropped its Greek name Beroea and reverted to Halab. Arabic is related to the Aramaic then widely spoken in the Middle East, including by Jesus Christ and his disciples. Arab conquerors were not as alien as crusaders after 1100, or French and British after 1830.
Christianity had been transformed by Roman emperors, since Constantine, into a monarchical religion. During the Arab conquests, Marozzi shows that Islam was transformed in a similar sense by Muhammad’s successors the Caliphs, and their dynasties. Despite the religious authority of the first Caliphs, many were murdered, often on the orders of their relations: Umar in 644; Uthman (while reading the Koran) in 656; the prophet’s son-in-law Ali (while praying in a mosque) in 661, thereby starting the Shia-Sunni conflict which endures today.
After the accession of the first Abbasid Caliph in 750, all members of the rival Umayyad dynasty were murdered or disinterred; royal skulls were used for target practice. Marozzi’s sense of landscape, helped by photographs of the places described, many of which he knows well, and five appendices from different contemporary sources, gives The Arab Conquests particular immediacy and authenticity.
Both religions were subverted by the demands of empires and monarchy. Simplicity and egalitarianism were replaced by dominant dynasties, powerful royal households and bodyguards, and a taste for luxury. A similar process has again been taking place in the cradle of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula, since its conquest a hundred years ago by another dynasty, the House of Saud.
Philip Mansel’s latest books are Aleppo: the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City (I.B.Tauris 2016) and King of the World: the life of Louis XIV (Penguin 2019). He is a co- founder of the Society for Court Studies and the Levantine Heritage Foundation.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.