Friday, 18 October 2013

The spread of Islam

The Great Arab Conquests - How the Spread of Islam changed the World we live in. Hugh Kennedy. 

Wiedenfeld & Nicolsen, London, 2007. PP 421 Illustrated and maps.

This review was written on February 2nd 2011.

I first saw this book on the shelves of the RDS Library. It was in January 2011 and just after the disturbances in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt had commenced. I read the book during our holiday in Tenerife that month. The 428 pages were a task too far and it was not an easy read. It is evident from the author’s introduction that there is a dearth of documentary evidence available about the entire period of the Islamic invasion of the East and North Africa. Much of the history as recounted by the author is speculative and the few documentary sources available are often contradictory. This makes the appreciation of this important event in world history less satisfactory for the reader. I read parts of the book carefully, particularly about the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and other sallies into France and the Mediterranean Islands where there is perhaps a little more information available to the historian. 

The paucity of documentary material led me inevitably to skipping the earlier chapters dealing with the Arabian conquest of the Near and Middle East as far as Iran and Afghanistan and parts of latter day Pakistan. The early 7th century conquest included Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the other parts of the Near East close to the current borders of Turkey which was then part of the Byzantine Empire. The conquest included the North African littoral as far as present day Morocco, inhabited then by the Berbers. The entire conquest of these extensive regions started about the time of Mohamed’s death in 632 and was completed before the end of the same century, a period of less than 70 years. A handful of Arabian Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula became an army which managed to conquer the entire region. The treatment the conquered people received varied widely in terms of military and political strategy. Some cities, towns and regions were dealt with in brutal fashion while others were dealt with leniently, particularly when the beleaguered population surrendered without resistance. The various other religious in the area were as often as not tolerated but by the end of the century most of the inhabitants had adopted the Islamic faith.

The first attempts to conquer Spain and Portugal were delayed until the early 8th century but within the short period of six years from the year 711 the entire Iberian Peninsula, with the exception of the North West, was taken over from the Visigoths who had earlier inhabited the peninsula as emigrants from Germany. The Islamic occupation, led by Tariq and largely supported by Berber soldiers who were inhabitants of North Africa, took over the administration of the Spanish and Portuguese territories but, apart from the military and administrative functions of the invaders, the local population were not greatly molested as long as  taxes were paid.  The Arabs were to continue their occupation of most of the peninsula for the  next eight hundred years during which the Muslims and the Christians appeared to have lived in reasonable harmony until the invaders were eventually dislodged by Philip the First in the 16th century and his successor Charles the Fifth.

The Islamic invasion of Gaul
As in the East and North Africa, there is little documentary material about the Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. I am told by my late sister-in-law, Rosemarie Mulcahy, that by the 16th century, at the time of their banishment from Spain, the Arabs mostly occupied the rural areas of the country where they had established the fruit and olive industries which to-day are such a traditional part of the economic fabric of Spain and Portugal. During their banishment the Islamic population suffered many cruelties in the hands of Philip 1 and his Spanish subjects. The Arabs had also invaded Sicily, the lower regions of Italy and the South of France but their stay in these parts was short-lived. 

The great Mosque of Córdoba
During subsequent centuries attempts were made by the Arabs to conquer Constantinople where the Byzantine kings reigned but the Byzantine control of the sea was a major factor in preventing the fall of their capital.  Unfortunately, there is no reference to the later spread of the Islamic faith to Turkey and to the Greek peninsula in Europe nor is there any account of the relationship between the Greek Orthodox and the other Christian sects in Asia and the spreading Islamic faith. There is no reference to the Crusades which were organised in Europe to stop the spread  of Islam in the near East and one wonders about the factors which led to the Turkish domination of the Near East and North Africa during the later centuries of the second millennium. For those of us who live on the Atlantic coast, it is not surprising that we are told about the Dark Ages which preceded Medieval times. It appears that the poor documentary sources left by the early Muslims was in contrast to the richer sources coming to us from Rome and Greece in classical times. Is it possible that the gradual spread of the Islamic tongue among people whose language had been earlier based on Latin ond Greek was a deterrent to the production of the written word? A factor which may be relevant was the absence in the Islamic world of the monasteries and other academic institutions in mediaeval Europe which were such storehouses of ancient literature.

Córdoba Mosque interior
At a later date I was to read Michael Barry’s Homage to Al-Anbalus about the rise and fall of Islamic Spain. It stirred my interest and my curiosity about the unique story of a new and vibrant civilisation appearing so abruptly on the Iberian Peninsula, surviving for more than seven centuries and, while dominating the inhabitants, largely living together with the natives in harmony. After these long years they were to leave or to be banished as abruptly as the day of their arrival. They may not have left a vibrant literature behind them but Barry’s book, with its fine collection of photos, reminds us of the Islams’ rich architectural heritage. We are also reminded by the history of Spain that politics and religion need not conflict but this virtue, greatly to be desired for the good of humanity, was rudely and cruelly forgotten by Phillip the first and his Catholic subjects.

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