4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Interestingly, this book is the first and - to my knowledge - the only comprehensive major study on the armies of the Caliphs and their relationship with society. Contrary to what is suggested by another reviewer on Amazon.com, this is not simply a "claim". It is also more than simply an "excellent summary" and it is not really about "early Islamic History" either. Rather, in studying the relationship between army and society during a period of over three centuries - from about 600, just before the Conquest began, to 945, and the take-over of military power by the Buyids - it aims to discuss and explain the "whys" and the "hows": how the armies of the Caliphs evolved, the reasons underpinning these changes, and their medium and long term impact and consequences on the Caliphate and on its society. In this, it is remarkably successful.
Hugh Kennedy does, of course, discuss the Muslim sources and explains what makes them so original, when compared to Western sources covering the same period, difficult to deal with but also extraordinarily rich. The two main narrative sources that he uses - Al-Baladhuri writing in the ninth century and Al-Tabari writing in the tenth century - included in their narratives and therefore helped to preserve a large amount of material from previous authors which would be otherwise lost to us. In a way, these two scholars were perhaps at least as much compilers as they were "historians" telling us their own version of what had happened. This is what makes them so valuable but also so difficult to work with. Their value is that they, and the previous sources that they transmit, are very heavily "prosopographical": their focus is on specific people and groups, much more than being on institutions, events or even caliphs and chronology. The reason for this is very well explained and lies in the transition from what was essentially a tribal organization to that of a state where those that had directly participated in the victories of the Conquest (and their descendants) were entitled to what was initially a share of the spoils and what evolved into a share of the tax revenues of the province or district that they (and their ancestor for subsequent generations) had helped to conquer for Islam. So there was, in the generations of Arabs that immediately followed the Conquest, what we would nowadays call a "vested interest" in showing that a given warrior participated in such and such a campaign or battle.
The central thesis of the book is to show how the relationship between "Army", "State" and society changed over time. It is also to show why the Caliphs made changes in the social and ethnic composition of the army and how these changes had significant consequences and interactions with the State and the society. In other words, some of these changes "back-fired" and had long-term negative consequences. At the beginning, and prior to the Conquest, there seems to have been no institutionalized state. Rather, there was a growing collection of Arab tribes united by Islam under the banner of a commander-in-chief (the Prophet and his immediate successors). There was also, as Kennedy shows, little distinction between tribes, which made up the society, and armed forces (rather than the army), which were essentially made up of all adult males of each tribe.
The first distinctions began to appear just after the Conquest, as Arab warriors and their families were settled in Irak, Syria and Egypt, but separated from the populations that they had conquered. Being a Muslim and being a descendant of the initial conquerors were necessary conditions for being part of the armed forces (the junds) and being paid for it through taxes levied from the non-Muslims in the respective regions. However, the army was no longer equated with all of the society. Overtime, this distinction between military and civilians could only grow, as a growing number of non-Muslims converted. The second distinction that grew overtime was that all Muslims were no longer necessarily part of the army and the army could not be reduced to Arabs only. To some extent, Arab armies, even during the Conquest, were not exclusively Arab. They also included, for instance, and as Kennedy shows, Persian units that had changed sides and converted, or, later on, Berbers in North Africa and Spain.
Another change and growing that appeared after 656, but had probably been growing before, was the double need for the State and the Caliph to ensure that the army was loyal and that access to resources - the cash payments that soldiers received - was reserved to those that were loyal. As Kennedy also shows very well, this consideration largely explains the growing rivalry that least to civil war between the armed forces in Syria and those in Irak, and the domination of the former, once the Umayyads had won. He also shows that the next evolutions, the reliance of the Abbasides on soldiers from Khorasan up to the early ninth, and then their increasing reliance on the various types of "slave-soldiers" followed the same logic and was intended to address similar tensions. Regarding the latter, he stresses that the important point was not their legal status. Rather, it was their loyalty to the reigning sovereign because they made up both his bodyguard and his shock troops. This loyalty was secured to the extent that they owed everything to the Caliph, starting with their existence and their salaries, and that they were isolated within Muslim society: they were foreigners (mostly Turkish, from the ninth century onwards) and they were feared if not also hated by the population of Badgad .
The paradox that this created is also one of the most interesting points in the book: these foreigners (quasi-mercenaries), although Muslim, depended entirely on the State for their survival. To ensure the latter and to control its dwindling resources, they increasingly tried to control the State and to replace independent minded Caliphs by their puppets. This, in turn, accelerated the crumbling of the Caliphate which was already suffering from rebellions from powerful governors at the beginning of the ninth century, until the mid-tenth century, when the Buyids stripped the Caliphs of their political powers and became military dictators in Irak. By that time, most of the other provinces had broken away and become separate states.
There is also a couple of added benefits: a short piece on the Armies of the Conquest and a short discussion of the causes of their huge successes, despite the fact that none of these are thecore subject covered by the author in this book. Finally, there are discussions of the army itself, including discussions on numbers, which is also one of the book's strongpoints because Kennedy does provide estimates, and on equipment, sieges and fortifications, on which he has less to say. This is partly because of the sources but mostly because these elements are not central to the book's purpose, that is the interactions between army, state and society, NOT an "Islamic Military History".
In addition, and even if this may seem short for some, all the main points are made.
So, in my view, and even if the glossary or the maps could perhaps have been more extensive, the "product" delivered by Hugh Kennedy is simply excellent, remains unmatched, and should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the Arab Conquests and the three first centuries of Islam, and not only for "experts and specialists."
This is because, as he shows so well, so much of what happened after was conditioned by what existed before....