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on 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 5 February 2018
A pretty bloodless version of events. The author does mention killing occasionally, but doesn't seem to want to mention that the Arabs/Muslims slaughtered (and enslaved) their way to a massive oppressive Empire.
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on 6 November 2014
Revealing and explaining a fairly little known history
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on 26 April 2009
This is a very difficult read and I have put it down for the time being. It seems to require quite a bit of known info on the part of the reader and I am certainly not, in any way, enamoured with the writer`s prose or style.
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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 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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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 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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