Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1, edited by Chase F. Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This book covers the period from before Islam's rise to the 11th century. It begins with a substantial overview of the early Byzantine and late Sasanian empires, which became the arenas of Arab expansion soon after the start of the Muslim era.

A lot more is known about the Byzantine Empire than about the Sasanian one. The ancient Greek historical tradition, which went back to Herodotus and his predecessors, survived until the 7th century. Sasanian historical writings are much more meagre. Also, more archeological work has been done in the Mediterranean than in Iran.

It seems that the demographic, economic and cultural decline which affected Western Europe during the Dark Ages was felt in the Eastern Roman Empire as well, though to a lesser extent.

Instead of disappearing, most eastern cities shrank. Inside them fora, major thoroughfares and other public spaces were built over with private houses. Rubbish was dumped in buildings that fell out of use. Theaters, gymnasia, water supply systems and public baths were abandoned, while churches proliferated. In the countryside the area under cultivation decreased. The volume of trade went down, as did its range. Economies became more local. Anatolia and the Balkans suffered worse than other parts of the Eastern Empire.

Climate change may have been partly to blame:

"By about 500 CE the climatic situation was changing, with colder and wetter conditions persisting up to the mid ninth century."

You have to realize though that the complexity of elite Greek culture peaked in the 3rd century BC and then declined for many, many centuries afterwards. I'm willing to believe however that the coldness and wetness of the Dark Ages exacerbated pre-existing downward trends.

There's less data on Iran, but according to this book, "...the Sasanian world in general appears to have experienced a slow demographic downturn from the later third century onwards, as settlement surveys and sherd distribution analysis would seem to suggest..."

The Sasanian dynasty replaced the Parthian one in Iran in the 3rd century AD. It was more hostile to Rome than its predecessor, eventually killing three Roman emperors in war. Until the 7th century the Sasanians didn't try to occupy Roman territory though, raiding for booty and captives instead. They abducted tens of thousands of Roman citizens, many of them skilled craftsmen, in order to settle them in their realm.

"Roman prisoners of war built many of the roughly twenty Sasanian bridges and dams that are still to be seen today."

According to this book, the fiscal and military reforms of Diocletian and his successors were meant to make Rome more capable of dealing with the Sasanian threat. From what I understand, they were also attempts to bring internal order to the Roman Empire after the crisis of the 3rd century.

By the way, the estimates of late Roman taxation levels that are cited here range from 5%-7% to 25%. This reminded me that there are economists who assign numbers to the Roman GDP. The idiocy of these people is profound. Forget tax rates, there's a lively debate among historians on whether the city of Rome had 1,500,000 or 150,000 people at its imperial peak.

Both the Roman and Sasanian empires had multiethnic populations, but only the latter was politically ethno-nationalist. The ethnically non-Iranian parts of the Sasanian realm were called Aneran (un-Iran), and "ideologically, the people of Aneran remained second class inhabitants of the empire."

The Zoroastrian religion was much less universalist than Christianity, much more concerned with a specific country and people - Iran and Iranians.

The Sasanian shahs portrayed themselves as the heirs of an enormously long line of past Iranian rulers, although the names of individual Achaemenid kings were already forgotten by then. They did have a legend of the evil conqueror "Alexander of Rum" though, and another one that reinterpreted Alexander as a Persian prince.

Projecting modern ideological biases onto the past in a similarly closed-minded way, the authors of this book called the "distinct, quasi-‘nationalistic’ Sasanian Iranism" "a big drawback".

During the Byzantine-Sasanian wars Arab tribes were recruited as allies by both sides.

"...thanks to Roman-Persian rivalry Arab tribal society had become much more militarised than it had been in the past, and, just as important, much more conscious of the possibility of gaining access to the wealth of the settled Near East."

In the Persian-Byzantine war of 602-628 the Sasanians captured Egypt, the Levant and much of Anatolia. But then the Byzantine emperor Heraclius concluded an alliance with Turkic nomads, who rode in from the north to save him from total defeat. He was then able to recapture old Byzantine provinces right before losing them again to the Arabs.

"Muslim success may owe something to Roman war weariness, but that is a rather nebulous concept, possibly more appealing to scholars at their desks than to the sort of young men who actually filled the ranks of the Roman army. More important may have been the lack of ready cash. Heraclius had had to fight Persia without the revenues of Egypt and the Levant."

Unlike the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian state was entirely destroyed by the Arabs.

"The reasons for the priority for the conquest of Iran rather than the rump of the Roman empire might be the following: (a) it was Iran that had posed a steadily growing threat to the H.ijaz throughout the Prophet’s lifetime; (b) Islam acknowledged its affinity with Christianity, but could not but set itself against Zoroastrian dualism; (c) Iraq was much more exposed to counter attack across the Zagros than was Palestine, shielded as it was by Syria to the north. The issue of priority is crucial. For it is plain that Byzantium was ripe for the taking by the early 650s, and that it was ultimately saved by the outbreak of civil strife within the caliphate in 656. Then, and only then, were the Byzantines able to revive their spirits and reactivate the ideology of a Christian, Roman, world-shaping power." [...]

"In contrast to the large-scale, resource-intensive and protracted campaigns that were so typical of Byzantine-Sasanian warfare of the sixth and early seventh centuries, and which in at least some places resulted in widespread violence and social dislocation, the Islamic conquests of the mid seventh century read like a series of relatively short engagements (the great battle of al Qadisiyya is said to have lasted three days), which were made by relatively small and hit-and-run armies that rarely laid sieges of any length or produced casualties in large numbers. In many and perhaps most cases in the Byzantine provinces, local elites cut deals that avoided large scale violence."

The figures given by the Islamic sources for the numbers of Arab combatants are "often in the hundreds or low thousands; even a large army, such as the one that fought at al Qadisiyya, probably numbered no more than 10,000 or 12,000 men."

Wild nomads had been periodically conquering the centers of civilization since pre-historic times. They were more macho and used to war than settled peoples. A larger share of their male population had been in the saddle since childhood. Most settled folks were farmers instead. So really, the only unusual thing about the Arab conquest was its later religious impact.

This book repeatedly stresses that almost everything we know about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam was written two to three centuries after the fact, and not in marginally-literate Arabia, but in the old centers of Near Eastern civilization, in Syria and Iraq, by people who strove to justify their views of the politics of their own times.

Christian and Jewish sources confirm that there really was a man named Muhammad who made prophetic claims and who created a state in the early 7th century, but very little else can be said about him with certainty. By the way, it's mentioned here that the word Muhammad ("the praised one") was probably an epithet applied to him after the start of his religious career.

Western historians started questioning the official Christian views of the beginnings of Christianity back in the Enlightenment era. Since Islam was far less relevant to Western politics until recently, the same sort of academic skepticism wasn't applied to it until the last decades of the 20th century.

After the Byzantine and Sasanian armies were defeated, most of the civilian populations of the conquered areas accepted Arab rule without a fight. The new power's financial demands were modest. Life in the Christian communities of the Middle East went on as usual. Until the end of the 7th century the old Greek- and Persian-speaking bureaucracies continued to function without much interference from the Arab authorities.

"In sum, the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia was rather like a summer thunderstorm"..."terrifying while it lasted, but soon past and the damage promptly repaired."

For several decades after the conquest the Arabs did not try to convert the subject peoples to "Islam", whatever that meant at that point. When non-Arabs first started joining, they had to be incorporated into Arab tribal lineages by Arab patrons. The universality of Islam took some time to develop.

"Early Islam, outside the Hijaz, was the elite religion of a tribally-organised military. During the period of conquest the Islamic religion possessed only a rudimentary theology, which was probably even more basic among military units. Contemporary Byzantium might have perceived the conquest as a menacing rebellion and if they had noticed the religious dimension at all - an Arab heresy of Judaeo-Christian origin." [...]

"As for Islam, sophisticated Christian observers initially regarded it as little more than the inchoate cult of a few thousand barbarians; it could hardly threaten so deep-rooted and richly-elaborated a faith as Christianity."

While reading this book, it was fascinating for me to watch the various features of what we now understand as Islam emerge for the first time in the documentary record.

A papyrus receipt from Egypt dated with the year 22 (643 AD) is the first known use of the new Muslim calendar. Starting in 651 AD the phrase "bism allah", which some will remember from the Bohemian Rhapsody and which means "in the name of God", appears on some coins. But the word "allah" was used by pagan Arabs before Islam and continues to be used by Christian Arabs today.

For some years after the conquest Iranian coins continued to be struck with the images of Zoroastrian fire temples on one side and the names of old, dead shahs on the other. Starting about 661 AD the names of the shahs were replaced by those of the Arab-appointed governors, but the fire temples remained! Contemporary coins in the formerly Byzantine territories retained the Christian cross.

Caliph Muawiyah (661 - 680 AD) issued coins proclaiming him "the commander of the faithful", but with no other religious messages. A Christian source mentions him restoring a church in Edessa after it was damaged by an earthquake in 679.

In 680, after Muawiyah's death, there was a struggle for power, which led to a civil war among the Arabs. One of the claimants to the caliphal title, ibn Al Zubayr, wanted to emphasize his close ties to Muhammad's family and to the latter's real (or imagined) ideas, and through these to the origins of Arab rule in most of the Middle East.

Between 685 AD and 688 AD ibn al Zubayr issued coins in Iran that said "Muhammad is the messenger of God". But the portrait of the old shah and the fire temple still remained. Around 689 AD Zubayrid authorities created a coin which marks the first known appearance of "the shahada", the central Muslim message that "there is no God but God". In 691 they finally removed the Zoroastrian fire temple from these coins.

Ibn al Zubayr was defeated and killed soon after this, but his numismatic innovations were picked up by the winners. From that point on the symbols of the Arab state always conformed to what we now recognize as Islam.

If the religious ideas of the Arab conquerors were hazy at first, why did they later coalesce into something much more definite, and something so different from and opposed to Christianity and Judaism? This isn't really explored in this book, but I would point to the obvious fact that the Arab empire was a rival of Byzantium. So while monotheism was definitely the trend of the time, the Arab version of it was under no compulsion to follow the Byzantine model.

Also, the old cities of the Fertile Crescent which the Arabs conquered contained lots of intellectuals who were more than willing to engage in doctrinal debates which eventually defined, refined, and extended the new state's ideology. And to increase legitimacy, they would have tended to project their ideas back onto Muhammad, the state's founder.

As time went on, the non-Arab majority of the empire began to convert to the new, rapidly-evolving religion because it was the ideology of power. It's estimated here that Iran, for example, became majority Muslim around the middle of the 9th century AD. Egypt is thought to have become majority Muslim in the 9th century as well.

Simultaneously the descendants of the conquerors intermarried with the locals. There was a change of dynasty in 750 AD, which involved troops from Iran, probably of mixed Arab/Persian character, replacing Syrian Arab troops as the basis of the caliphal army. This new dynasty, the Abbasids, downplayed the Arab identity of the empire in favor of the Muslim one, which was by then already understood by many to be universalist.

As people of Arab descent became a minority among Muslims, Muslim armies and Islam's governing elite, the beduins reverted to their old poverty and obscurity. In a few centuries their alienation form the structures created by their ancestors became so strong that they started to rob the caravans of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, and occasionally even plundered the Kaaba.

Various Iranian Muslim groups rose to power at different times. Then, in the 9th century, Muslims started raiding the Central Asian steppe, capturing Turkic slaves in order to employ them as professional soldiers. Steppe nomads were always good at war, so it's not surprising that in time they ended up dominating the military profession in most of the Islamic world. The enslavement of these nomads seems only to have been OK if they were pagans. Spaniards had a similar attitude to slavery in the Americas in later centuries.

One of the most interesting episodes of this period was the revolt of the Zanj:

"This Arabic word denotes blacks originating from the East African coast. Large numbers of East African slaves had, in the later first/seventh century [Glossy: Muslim/Christian calendar], been brought to work in southern Iraq under harsh conditions. In the third/ninth century we find gangs of Zanj kept in conditions of acute hardship and misery and working in the marshlands (al bat.apih.) of lower Iraq, removing the nitrous topsoil (sibakh) to reclaim the land for cultivation."

The Zanj revolt was led by an Arab who promised them "revenge against their oppressors, riches and slaves of their own" and who "made good on these promises to a remarkable extent" in the next few years.

"The local and caliphal authorities were unable to defend against the Zanj, who moved swiftly on interior lines, hidden by the swamps. They seized the main cities of lower Iraq and neighbouring Khuzistan, including Basra, Wasit, Abbadan and Ahwaz. They slaughtered many inhabitants, but did not occupy these cities permanently: all the Abbasid forces could do was to enter these ruined centres of early Islamic civilisation and survey the devastation."

This revolt was only suppressed with great difficulty. While rebellions were numerous, almost all of them were ideologically Islamic. The only exceptions were the Muslim-Christian conflict in Spain and the unsuccessful attempt by a man named Mardavij to revive a Zoroastrian state in Iran in the early 930s AD.

In the later 9th century the caliphate, which was never very centralized, began to definitely break up into a patchwork of virtually-independent states.

This book's editor dealt with that by devoting separate chapters to various Islamic regions. However, the authors of these chapters did not coordinate among themselves, so they often recounted events that affected more than one region separately, needlessly repeating things.

I was struck by this description of the Ibadi imamate in Oman:

"In its structure and ideas the Imamate differed considerably from the Caliphate. There was no ruling family and no hereditary succession. It was a tribal community in which the leader was elected by a group of elders (namely, religious scholars), took his decisions by consultation, had no privileged position, and had only limited authority to compel military service."

This is very unusual for the Middle East, whose politics, like daily life, normally revolves around extended families instead.

The chapter on Syria mentions the survival of a pagan, astral religion in Harran, near the modern Syrian-Turkish border, into Islamic times. We normally think of late remnants of paganism as hiding in remote, inaccessible areas like the Caucasus, Afghanistan or the Kurdish mountains, but Harran was a substantial town in a well-settled region.

The chapter on Egypt explained to me for the first time how Nile irrigation worked:

"Out of the flood had emerged the system of ‘basin’ irrigation, under which the floodwater was formed into artificial lakes by long earthen banks to allow it to soak into the soil. A collective effort was required to build the banks, and to open and close the entrances each year."

Of course I knew about the Nile floods, but when I saw the word "irrigation" in reference to Egypt, I always imagined canals, not this.

There seems to have been more immigration and settlement of Arabs in Egypt than in the other parts of the empire. They took local wives in the Spaniards-in-America fashion, and the authors attribute the gradual decline of Egyptian Christianity and the Coptic language to that more than to conversion.

The area where Arabs encountered most resistance early on was the Berber Maghreb. And this makes sense: who would be a match for desert nomads if not other desert nomads?

"In contrast, the narrative of the conquest of Hispania in 92/711 recalls a similar pattern to the invasions in Byzantine and Sasanian territories: after one pitched battle and the defeat of the king’s army the Visigothic administration crumbled, clearing the way for an Arab rule which consolidated with remarkable ease and no serious challenges."

After the death of a Visigothic king of Spain named Witiza his sons fought against an usurper named Roderic. It seems that they were the ones who invited the Arabs and their Berber allies to the country. The Muslims defeated Roderic and, having taken power, confirmed the extensive land holdings of the sons of Witiza. Their descendants through a female line became the leading Muslim families in Seville in later centuries. The intermarriage of the Visigothic elite with the commanders of the conquerors seems to have been common.

Coins struck in Spain by the victors in 711 AD featured the shahada in Latin: "Non Deus Nisi Deus Non Deus Alius."

The survival of the Persian language in Iran is made particularly remarkable by the fact that Latin was dying in Muslim Spain:

"In a celebrated text a Cordoban Mozarab called Alvarus complained that in his time only one among a thousand Christians was able to write a letter in Latin." [...]

" the fourth/tenth century Christian sacred books were being translated into Arabic in significant numbers, which bears witness that even among Christian populations that language was more widespread than Latin."

Of course some Spanish Christians fought Muslims in the north, but there were cases of extraordinary defiance in the south as well:

"The voluntary martyrs thus presented themselves to the judge of Cordoba, hurling blasphemy and abuse against the Prophet and Islam in the full knowledge that this left the official no choice but to condemn them to death in application of the law. As a result almost fifty Christians were executed in Cordoba between 850 and 859."

One of this volume's final chapters reviews the history of the Western study of Islam. It says that a lot of progress was made during the Cold War, when Western governments needed specialists who could help them influence Muslim countries. They increased the funding of the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and that eventually trickled down to historic research in the same way that the funding of military technology during the same era indirectly led to scientific advances.

This implies that the area of Islamic studies may produce remarkable results in the next couple of decades, as some of the smarter members of the enormous horde of failed spooks bred by Western governments after 9/11 slowly grope their way out towards the light of historic scholarship.


  1. Late antiquity is definitely my favourite period of history, I find the state of flux or the era fascinating.
    I recommend you take a look at Emmet Scott's "Mohammad & Charlemagne Revisited", the most radically revisionist book on period I've read.
    He argues that the Arab "conquest" was in fact an internal coup within the Sassanid Empire of Arab mercenaries, after the Persians had in fact won the war with Byzantium. Some points he makes in his favour:

    - The Caliphate continued to issue coinage representing the Shah and even Fire Temples until Muawiyah's time.

    - Many historians including Gibbon have commented on the fantastic nature of Heracliuses final reconquests,followed by loss to the Arabs. Gibbon mentions that strangely, his rule was bookended by drunkeness, incompetence and sloth; oddly interrupted by a middle period of military genius.

    - Contemporary Byzantine historians and particularly oddly; the Persian Shahnahmah make no mention of the Arab conquest. The Shahnahmah in fact references what appears to be a Persian civil war.

    - No physical or contemporary written evidence of the "4 Rightly Guided Caliphs" has been found.

    - Early Islam was thoroughly Persian in character, and the Arabs and Arabia vanish from importance remarkably quickly.

    - Zoroastrianism was going through a period of turmoil at this time, with the Mazdakite heresy, with competing Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity making strong inroads. During the conjectured civil war, the Arab-backed faction endorsed a form of non-Chalcedonian Christianity that later became Islam.

    - The dark ages were triggered by Europe's loss of eastern trade and crucially papyrus, and the Germanic migrations were not nearly as destructive as supposed. Byzantine coinage depicting the Emperors was even issued by Germanic rulers long after the fall of the Western Empire.

    The book also discusses problems of chronology and archaeology but you see the general gist. It's still one of the most interesting books I've read in the past 5 years, but unfortunately it's set back by the fact that the author seems to be some kind of anti-Arab Christian idealogue; like most writers willing to question the origins of Islam. At least the author is a traditional Catholic and not a Protestant.

    - Yevardian

    1. There's room for revisionism about this period because there are so few contemporary historical sources on it. It's literally a part of the Dark Ages. One thing I read in this book and which I didn't mention in my review is that no archeological work has been done in Mecca and Medina because the Saudis don't allow that.

      This book mentioned many revisionist works, at least one of which claims that the Arab conquests didn't happen. Others say that most of the official Muslim narratives about Muhammad and his immediate successors were written two or three centuries after the fact and that it's all fiction, meant to prove various points about 9th and 10th century politics in the caliphate. The authors of the Cambridge history did not seem to condemn the view that most of it could be fiction, but they do believe that there was a Mohammed from Mecca who claimed to be a prophet, and that the Arab conquests did happen.

      Thank you for the recommendation. I may check out Scott's book some day.