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on 26 September 2007
The Great Arab Conquests is a summary of the initial 100 years (approx) erruption of Islam from its founding heartland of Arabia, relating events on a territory by territory basis.

Kennedy begins discouragingly by setting out the problem faced by the historian: the lack of detailed and reliable contemporary record. Unfortunately, but predictably, this problem is not overcome and the success of the conquests ultimately remains an enigma.

At commencement the two regional superpowers were Byzantine and Persia. To the east the Arabs subsumed the whole of the Persian Sasanian empire and extended their dominion beyond as far as Sind. They took from the Byzantines the Fertile Crescent and northern Africa before conquering almost all of Spain and Portugal, and leaving a Byzantine rump corresponding to modern day Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.

Both empires had been ravaged in the 6th century by bubonic plague. At the turn of the 7th century they fought a ruinous war against each other leaving them further depleted economically and demographically. Trade in the mediterranean had partly collapsed due to the strife in the former Western Roman Empire. Great cities were left depopulated by this combination of circumstances. Religious divisions between Christians meant that local communities often felt little allegiance to Byzantine. Yet these factors alone do not explain why time after time Arab armies overcame substantially more numerous opponents. Ultimately Kennedy has no real explanation for this - a Muslim is left entitled to attribute it to God's will.

What is striking for the modern reader is that the primary purpose of the conquests does not appear to have been religous conversion, which usually occurred only gradually over the ensuing 200-300 years. Rather it was a process of military conquest. There was a strong economic imperative in the initial form of "booty" and subsequently by means of the poll tax that non-muslim peoples required to pay in order to live peacefully. Wealth flowed from the conquered lands to Damascus in the form of precious metals and stones, and in human form as slaves (the Berbers of north Africa suffering in particular). Relatively small Arab populations formed miltary and administrative elites in the conquered lands with life otherwise going on much as before for the local populations. It is difficult not to see a parallel with the British presence in India a thousand years later.

Kennedy tells his story in a simple narrative style with occassional humour but his prose is often flat. The territory by territory presentation has its drawbacks. It is often hard to relate simultaneous events in different geographic areas. The central policy of Damascus (if one existed) is hardly defined. The religous and political disputes within the central authority are alluded to but not well explained.
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on 21 April 2008
This is a necessary book. The subject is poorly covered in the generally accessible historical literature and it needed someone steeped in the difficult source material to fill the gap.
Hugh Kennedy does this very well indeed. Certainly his style can be a little pedestrian, and I thought in the later parts of the book battle followed battle in rather monotonous fashion. But those are minor shortcomings.
The reader gets a clear picture of the nature of the Muslim conquests, which came as a surprise to me, and how it was almost an accident of historical timing that allowed them to take place. Kennedy is particularly good on the geopolitics of the late Antique world, explaining how relations between Byzantine and Persian empires and splits within the Christian church let Islam in through the back door.
This should be the standard introduction to the subject for years to come.
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on 7 September 2009
Over all a great read. Well-researched and written in a narrative style which absorbs you and almost takes you in the midst of the battles (does not do the full job for lack of dramatisation, and rightly so). Particular credit to the recurrent suspicion and critique with which the author treats the Arab sources. However, reference to the other non-Arab records of the time gives credibility to the story and one can take comfort in having enjoyed an authentic piece of history. Particularly, setting out the poems and other literature recording sentiments of the conquerors and the conquered brings a unique human touch to the book.

This is not a comprehensive history or analysis of the Arab conquests, nor does it pretend to be (clarifies it at the outset in the Introduction). Yet a very delightful way of getting familiar with what might have happened. It is not a novel and does not attempt to over-dramatise events, but the magic of the narrative makes you not want to put it down. I finished the book in a matter of few days.
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on 31 December 2007
This is a superb introduction to early Islamic history. It deals with the historical material cautiously but without totally dismissing it out of hand. It is, of course, written from a Christian perspective but that's to be expected and does not detract overall from the quality of the research.
Kennedy is respectful of his sources but some of his conclusions could have been elaborated further. It's not enough to attribute the crushing defeat of the 2 greatest empires of Eurasia within 8 years of the Prophet Muhammad's death to the bubonic plague and Romano-Persian wars: the Arab position was rather as if Poland had decided to attack both the Soviet Union and Germany in 1937 - both the Soviets and Germans had suffered from war and contagion - the great influenza epidemic - and, in the former case, even mass starvation but just as Poland wouldn't have lasted more than a couple of weeks, I would have expected the same for the Arabs in CE 632. We need to look elsewhere for the answer and it's a shame that Prof. Kennedy does not do so.
The writing is at times pedestrian but this book is a lot better written than The Court of the Caliphs and tackles a subject rarely covered well in history books.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 April 2012
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" 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...
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 January 2011
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.
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on 27 April 2009
This is worth reading to try and understand how a motley group of nomads managed to defeat two great Empires (Persian and Byzantine). Its just a pity that the written sources are so thin so we have to rely on the conqueror's accounts wheich were often written decades after the event. Mr Kennedy is careful to point this out, however.
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on 15 November 2007
I fully agree with the two comments below especially the fact that this book highlights the problems of analyzing Arab conquests without any attempt to address them. The book, while fairly well researched, leaves you wondering what to take as an historical fact and what to discard as pure myth. In many places the author goes on for couple of pages telling a story only to go back and doubts its sources.

Being from the Middle East myself, I have read about most of the general topics in the books. However, I found few points to be very interesting like 1) the role of Copts in conquering Egypt 2) the relationship with different religions in general and finally the fate of many great conquerors. I had thought that only Musa Bin Nusair was ill treated as the regime in Damascus changed but apparently it was quite a typical treatment. I also liked the use of poems from the period to try to understand the psychology of the time.

Overall I think the author has what it takes to write very good history books but he will have to reach his own conclusions instead of treating the book as an academic research paper.

I give it Four Stars.
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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.
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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.
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