Talk about your clash of civilizations. How is it, wonders Kennedy (When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty, 2005, etc), that a comparative handful of desert herdsmen could conquer much of the known world and topple several venerable empires in the bargain?
In 632 CE, when Muhammad died, Islam was confined to a few parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The dominant power in the region was the Byzantine Empire, with Greek the lingua franca of Egypt and the Holy Land; in much of the Middle East, Arabic was unknown. Yet, notes Kennedy, something unexpected happened; within the next century, Arabic-speaking armies, most smaller than 20,000 men, emerged from the Arabian desert and took down states from Portugal to Pakistan. The Muslim doctrine of jihad fit nicely with this unprecedented expansion, but it seems clear from Kennedy’s anecdote-rich narrative that there was more to it than all that; the possibility of leaving the desert for more congenial, better-watered climes beckoned, and so did the prospect for wealth and booty figure. One telling tale, in that regard, concerns a man who tried to enlist, was warned that he might be martyred as a holy warrior and tried to back out—until he dreamed that should he join he would become rich, “which proved more enticing than the spiritual benefits.” But the larger explanation for success, as Kennedy observes, is that the Arab armies were just that—armies: “The early Muslim conquests were not achieved by a migration of Bedouin tribesmen with their families, tents and flocks in the way that the Saljuk Turks entered the Middle East in the eleventh century,” he writes. “They were achieved by fighting men under orders.” Blend discipline, training and ideology with hunger, set all this up against ripe, decadent, even corrupt targets, and the Arab conquest seems nearly inevitable.
A little-known history lucidly told, with episodes that might have come out of today’s headlines.