This book from Hugh Kennedy is probably the best introduction to the Great Arab Conquests that cover slightly more than a century from the death of Mahomet to the fall of the Umayyads (632 to 750, using the Christian calendar). There are many reasons for this book to be so valuable.
First of all, Hugh Kennedy carefully defines his subject: this book is about the Conquests, not the internal politics among the Muslim leadership. It does not even attempt to discuss Islam, neither does it enter into a "compare and contrast" exercice with the two other monotheist religions that predated the revelation of Islam. Contrary to what another reviewer mentioned, however, the narrative and analysis is not only focused on the military, if only because the book's aim is to explain how a comparatively small number of tribesmen out of Arabia managed to defeat the two largest Empires of the time and conquer with a few decades an Empire that was even more extensive than the Roman Empire at its peak.
Second, Hugh Kennedy discusses the sources. Contrary to the simplifications sometimes made in other reviews, he does not quite say that there is a lack of sources, or that they are unreliable. Instead, he shows that there are numerous sources reflecting different (and often opposed) viewpoints from the Christian side. There are also some from the Persian side. However, these sources - and the Christian ones in particular - are not mainly concerned with the political and military events. Rather, they tend to explain the defeats in religious terms: God's punishment for having sinned. The Muslim sources for the Conquest are also quite problematic, however, because they were often put into writting decades after the events that they relate and because they generally emphasize the deeds of given individuals from given Arab tribes. In other terms, there are not interested in dates, facts or events but rather in the glorious deeds of A or B belonging to family X or Y of a specific tribe.
Third, and contrary to what a couple of other reviewers have mentioned, Hugh Kennedy is very careful not to appear biased, although he may not always have been entirely successful. He certainly knows his subject and he is modest enough to acknowledge that it is simply impossible to provide a fully comprehensive bibliography on the topic (there would have to be thousands of references). True, he does sometimes use unflatering qualifiers for one or the other of the Muslim warlords. This has upset at least one reviewer who complains - correctly - that Kennedy has not explained how he came to these conclusions, obviously because he was constrained by his publisher's space requirements. These conclusions are grounded in at least some of the sources. They are not picked out of thin air, although they do look judgemental because explanations and discussions are lacking. Apart from that, this book is very well balanced. It is a political and military history of the Early Arab Conquests, so the situations of Byzantium and Persia in around AD 630 are only presented for context purposes. In particular, and although briefly outlined, they do not take center stage (contrary to what happens in Tom Holland's book, for instance), so that "W. Qureshi's" accusations ("his work is very disjointed, dry and boring"...as he hasa tendency to "go off tangent" detailing Byzantine and Persian history when brief background would suffice") are very unfair, quite incorrect (and very biased?) or I haven't been reading the same book. When writing history and trying to explain what happened and how it happened, providing enough context is essential. This is true for any period of history, including this one.
Fourth, another great merit of this book is to provide a whole list of factors - there are over twenty of them - that help explain why Persia fell, why the Eastern Roman Empire was largely overrun (although it survived - barely) and why the Great Arab Conquests were so successful, at least initially. It is perhaps with these that some Muslim readers might have a problem. Note, however, that even there, Hugh Kennedy's conclusions should not be presumed. When he states, for instance, that the morale of Arab armies' was significantly higher than that of their Persian or Byzantine foes or that the caliber of some of the Muslim warleaders was exceptional and unrivalled by their ennemies, there is nothing here that a devout muslim could object to. Put differently, he does not deny (quite the opposite, in fact) that the religious belief of the early conquerors played a major role in their success. Also, explaining that both Sassanid Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire were exshausted, almost bankcrupt and near to collapse as a result of the plague and their endless wars does not necessarily stop somebody from believing that the Conquests were "God's Will". This is, in fact, what the various Christian churches believed at the time. So, contrary to what another reviewer mentioned, Hugh Kennedy did not ascribe the successful Conquests to "chance events". In fact, he mentioned a "unique set of circumstances". Does that mean that the Conquests would have been impossible if the two Empires had not destroyed each other to such an extent? He never says this explicitly, although he does acknowledge that it would certainly have been more difficult and taken longer, which is obvious common sense, as opposed to bias.
Fifth, this book is well structured. The core of it (9 chapters) deals with the Conquests on a geographical and - when possible - a chronological order. For instance, the Conquest of Syria and Palestine is dealt with before the Conquest of Iraq because incursions in the former seem to have begun before incursions in the latter. Many chapters provide valuable insights. One of them is to show that the Arab invaders were often not very numerous (but them neither were their Byzantine or Persian ennemies), although, in some cases, they may have outnumbered their opponents because one of their main advantages was that they were much more mobile and moved much faster. Two other chapters deal with the - much more difficult - conquest beyong the Oxus, of which I personally knew very little about. Finally, the last two chapters are particularly interesting. One deals with the war at sea (against Byzantium). The other one makes extensive use of contempary Christian (and Persian, to a much lesser degree) sources, to show how the Conquests were accepted by the local populations whose conversion to Islam only occurred very progressivly ("Voices of the Conquered"). In particular, it shows that the alienated populations of Iraq, Syria-Palestine and Egypt hardly opposed the Conquests at all, for a range of reasons, and that they may have seen it in a favorable light and, in some cases, they may have even helped the invaders.
Sixth and last point of this overlong review: I liked Hugh Kennedy's style. He strives to write in plain English, privileging substance over form or melodramatic effects. He does not shy from trying to tackle difficult issues - such as respective numbers on each side during the major battles - although admitting that this is likely to be educated guesses, at best. His writing is also simple, and to the point, with the use of some telliong anecdotes but without overwhelming the narrative with them.
Reading this book was, for me, a real pleasure, especially since I picked it up just after having finished Mr Holland's very dissapointing's most recent book, which is on the same subject, but not half as good...
The Great Arab Conquests is the story of the spectacular, Arab-led birth and expansion of the Muslim empire, from the Hejira in 626 to its stabilisation around 750. Kennedy's book is extremely easy to follow, and indeed reads like a novel. At the same time, this is serious scholarship, with a valuable introduction on sources and constant discussion of the evidence. My only complaint is that the book gives an almost exclusively military account, with nothing on the emerging Caliphate's politics, including the civil strife that led to the Sunni / Shiite schism - but this would have had to be a 600-page book, I suppose.
PS: Avoid the 2008 Phoenix paperback edition.The punctuation is hopelessly messed up, with no space after each colon, as in this paragraph.This makes it really annoying to read.It is better to get a second-hand copy of the hardcover, which I understand does not have that problem.The editors get a zero for their work on the paperback.
on 20 January 2010
'The Great Arab Conquests' by Hugh Kennedy is a delightful book to read, full of interesting facts and great stories. I have read numerous books on the Roman Empire, Byzantium and the Crusades, this book fills in the gaps between those periods.
`The Great Arab Conquests' covers the period from death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 to the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750. We follow the victorious Arab armies as they spread from Mecca and Medina out through the Middle East into Afghanistan, into Morocco and the countries in-between and then across the straights into Andalusia. I wanted to share this quote from the chapter `Into the Maghreb' with other lovers of history:
"It was at the end of his raid in the Sus that Uqba reached the Atlantic. The moment has passed into legend. He is said to have ridden his horse into the sea until the water came up to its belly. He shouted out, `O Lord, if the sea did not stop me, I would go through the lands like Alexander the Great [Dhul-Qarnayn:], defending your faith and fighting the unbelievers.' The image of the Arab warrior whose progress in conquering in the name of God was halted only by the ocean remains one of the most arresting and memorable in the whole history of the conquests."
The stories from the historians, Christian and Muslim, the participants and the conquered are layed throughout the book offering interesting first-hand accounts within the narrative. I found the book to flow easily from one place to the next although the many different Arabic names caused me to slow down sometimes and re-check my notes this didn't detract from the story.
This is a well-researched and well-presented story, which was easy and enjoyable to read. I learnt quite a few things on the way and had a good time doing so. Recommended to anyone who enjoys a good history book or who has an interest in this region.
on 28 February 2008
This sweeping, engrossing narrative of Muslim conquests begins after the death of Muhammad in 632. The prophet's death and the subsequent Islam-inspired military conquests had reverberations that echo today. Author and professor Hugh Kennedy has taught this topic for 30 years. His thoughtful presentation molds diverse renditions of these complicated events from various historical Arab and non-Arab sources (some fragmentary) into a driving story about the people and events that shaped Islam. With a critical eye and an engaging style, he includes details about the cultures, politics, battles, beliefs, personal lives, heroics and motives that drove the men whose armies ranged over some of the world's most remote areas about 1,400 years ago. Reconstructing and deciphering these events is no easy task for any historian, yet Kennedy's book has aspects of a great novel. getAbstract highly recommends it to anyone interested in Islamic history and beliefs, which continue to shape the Middle East.