November 29, 2007


The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. By Hugh Kennedy. Da Capo. $27.95.

      Calling modern Islamic terrorists thugs and murderers operating at the behest of an unremittingly evil religion makes many people in the largely Christian West comfortable, but admits of no discussion regarding what today’s purveyors of what they consider to be jihad want the world to look like. The Great Arab Conquests dusts off important historical events of more than a thousand years ago – events that continue to have living presence for a great many Muslims today – and shows just what sort of glory Islamic power once achieved and, in the minds of some, can and will achieve again.

      Hugh Kennedy, who has taught in the Department of Mediaeval History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for 35 years, has explored the age of Islamic preeminence before, in When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. In his new book, Kennedy tries more clearly to relate the events of the 8th and 9th centuries to more-modern European and world history. The Great Arab Conquests shows just how extensive the rule of Mohammed’s followers was: A century after the Prophet’s death in the year 632, his successors controlled more territory than did the old Roman Empire, and had conquered it in half the time. The Muslim armies destroyed or nearly destroyed the Persian and Byzantine Empires, conquered the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and moved into southern France. And they did it with more than their considerable battlefield skill – they used the resources of conquered lands to enhance Islamic and Arabic identity and asserted longstanding hegemony through widespread but largely uncompelled conversions.

      This was above all religious warfare, waged so effectively by the followers of Mohammed – who, unlike Christ, did not preach meekness or turning the other cheek – that the Muslim Empire of the year 750 remained stable for the next 300 years, even expanding a bit more through its conquests of Sicily and Crete. “The early Muslims brought with them a great cultural self-confidence,” writes Kennedy. “God had spoken to them through His Prophet, in Arabic, and they were the bearers of the true religion and God’s own language.” Interestingly, although “conquest was the prelude to conversion,” the conquerors “put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility.” Sure of their God-given religion and language, the conquerors allowed both to spread more slowly and naturally than modern would-be Muslim rulers would likely tolerate.

      Kennedy’s extensive research is impressive, but he never explicitly connects the events of more than a millennium ago to anything occurring in the modern world – although the connection is surely clear enough in the minds of those who would be kings again. Kennedy gives short shrift to the events that stopped and eventually eroded Muslim expansion, such as Charles Martel’s decisive victory for the West in 732 – admittedly a battle of which few and incomplete accounts have survived. Still, the apparent implacability of the Muslim Empire’s conquests is treated at such length here that it may be difficult for readers to understand how it could eventually have imploded; and the extreme detail of battles – when such detail is available – will likely cause the eyes of many non-historians to glaze over. This is an important book for understanding some of the history that underlies many of today’s world-disturbing events; but because it never effectively connects the dots between that long-ago time and our modern age, many readers are likely to find it wanting as they try to comprehend the unremitting enmity of some in the Muslim world toward the West.

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