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In God’s Path: The Arab conquests and the creation of an Islamic empire

Anthony McRoy

Robert G. Hoyland
Oxford University Press, 303pp

Ever since 'the Islamic State' (IS) emerged, committing massacres, territorial aggression and slavery voices stated that its conduct shows what Islam is really about - sectarian oppression, whereas others claimed that IS operates contrary to the teaching of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (practice) of Muhammad, and against the stream of Islamic history. This book does not answer whether the Raqqa Caliphate is truly Islamic, since it is a book about early Islamic history - but it does show that massacres, enslavement, and territorial expansionism were frequent features of the nascent Islamic entity. Whilst it is untrue that Islam is a religion spread by the sword - as Hoyland shows, there was some resistance among the Arab conquerors at first to the idea of their new subjects converting - it is undeniable that the Islamic State spread by the sword.

Of course, all empires spread that way, so the Arab empire was not unique in this, and all early empires practised enslavement. The difference is that even if contemporary Russia plans a limited renewal of its old empire, slavery and brutal massacre are not on the cards. However, IS see the early history of Islam, in keeping with Muslim scripture, as mandatory guides to policy. Therefore, whilst a few years ago Hoyland's book might only have been of interest primarily to fellow-scholars, today it is a useful guide to even the layman of how to understand what is now taking place in the Middle East, and perhaps what response there should be to it.

Hoyland is one of the most prominent and able scholars of Islam, able to write in an interesting and accessible way for lay people. In the Appendix, he introduces the reader to the problem of sources. As stated earlier, IS operates on their understanding of the Qur'an and Hadith, yet the Hadith corpus was not compiled until two hundred years after Muhammad. The same is true of his biography (Seerah) and other Muslim histories of the era, as Hoyland comments: '...extant Muslim accounts do not antedate the ninth century and rely on a long line of authorities, any one of which may have reworded and reshaped the original report (or even invented the report and attributed it to a putative eyewitness.' As Michael Caine might say, 'not a lot of people know that'. Of course, IS do not accept that - they believe that the Hadith is divinely authoritative, and so act on it.

Again, Hoyland comments: 'Our problem is how we can verify an account for the times - and they are the majority - when we do not have independent testimony.' This has led to a division in Islamic Studies, unknown to most outside the discipline, between scholars accepting the traditionalist picture, and sceptics questioning it. Sadly, Hoyland comments that 'the massively increased public profile of Islam' since the 1970s/80s has made many academics 'shy of criticizing Islam and this has favoured the traditionalist approach...' A historian is meant to be dispassionate, and should neither favour nor disfavour any approach on any grounds save objective evidence. Hoyland bases his work on wider sources from the period, such as 'the large number of Christian and Jewish writings produced in that period.'

What emerges is that the Arab conquests were a consequence of the decline of both Persia and Byzantium, which had been in a long war, ending with Byzantine victory in 628. Consequently, Persia was thrown into internal chaos - in 630 an Empress succeeded to the Persian throne, interpreted as weakness by neighbouring Arab tribes. Upon the death of the warrior Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 641, his ten-year old grandson Constans acceded, leading to instability, intrigue and initial weak leadership. There are parallels with the political weakness of the Iraqi government, after the US withdrawal and in the face of Sunni disenchantment, and of the instability in Syria resulting from the Arab Spring, both of which produced the situation which allowed the rise of IS.

Hoyland does not fully accept the traditional view of Arabs from the Hijaz conquering all before them. In fact, elements from the former client tribes of the two empires effectively mutinied and joined their Arab brethren in attacking their former patrons. The picture we get is that these conquests were indeed partly inspired by religious fervour, although we should emphasise that there was no attempt to convert the conquered, and their religious buildings - if they had surrendered - were usually left in peace (at first). There was also the lure of plunder from the weakened empires. This provides a parallel to the Germanic tribes' conquest of the Western Roman Empire.

From the conquest of Syria and Iraq, the Arab empire was essentially a Jihad State, which did not rest on its laurels, but kept attacking and conquering. Worst of all, frequently we encounter the horror of enslavement - hence IS saw a pattern for their vile practice of enslaving Yezidis. It also helps comprehend how IS kept trying to expand, after the pattern of the first Islamic entity. Yet not all was plain sailing. Expansionism was postponed at certain points because of civil war, 656-661, leading the Arab ruler Mu'awiya to conclude a truce with Byzantium. Perhaps inciting disaffection and division among IS today would be a useful tactic in fighting the group. Above all, Constans, in his maturity, raised a large fleet, bolstered the defences of Constantinople, and made use of a new weapon - 'Greek fire' - which devastated the Muslim naval forces. At the time of writing, Russia is using deadly air power against Assad's foes, including IS. The evidence of history, as outlined in Hoyland's excellent work, is that this is the only thing that something like IS understands - and that can defeat it.