For a period that had such important consequences, very little has been written about the wars between the Roman, Persian and Arab empires in the sixth and seventh centuries. I’m sure there have been lots of academic papers but not much has appeared that is accessible to a wider audience.
Tom Holland’s book In The Shadow Of The Sword filled that gap last year and it’s a cracking read.
For western Europeans, this period is known as the Dark Ages. For us, it is the story of the development of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, of the rise of the Frankish Empire, of the coming of Christianity and literacy, of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. By then, for western Europe, the Roman Empire was a distant memory. But, while this is all relevant to the development of Britain, France, Germany and other European nations, it was very much on the periphery of world events at the time. The important news was being made elsewhere.
Although it had lost its possessions in Western Europe, the Roman Empire had hung on to its most populous, prosperous and taxable provinces in the East. Here, re-centred on its new capital in Constantinople, it was still a formidable power. A new religion, Christianity, had replaced the old Roman gods. It was being enthusiastically promoted by the emperors, not out of piety but for its power as a unifying force. This was particularly useful when taxes and warriors were needed for wars against the old enemy, Persia.
The Roman and Persian Empires spent centuries fighting each other in the Middle East for relatively small gains in territory. The border between the two roughly corresponded to modern one between Syria and Iraq for most of the period. Massive resources and countless lives were expended shifting the boundary by a few hundred miles, only for it to shift back again when the other empire got the upper hand. Then, towards the end of the period, Arab armies burst out of their peninsula and, within a few decades, conquered the whole of the Middle East and North Africa from the Romans and completely overran the Persian Empire.
The consequences of this were world-changing. The Mediterranean polity, for centuries under Roman rule, was torn in half. The Levant and North Africa were detached from Europe and fused with Arabia and the Middle-East. A new religion appeared which came to dominate these regions and still does today. With the fall of its early heartlands to Islam, Christianity became a predominantly European religion and evolved in line with European traditions. Our modern sense of what it means to be European, Middle-Eastern, Christian and Muslim began to take shape during this period.
So much, then, for what happened. As ever, why it happened is more controversial. How did a collection of nomadic Arab tribes take on the two superpowers of the day, beat them and, within a few decades, create a new empire in their place?
Muslim historians were pretty clear about this. Muhammad converted all the Arabs to Islam and with God on their side they were bound to be victorious. Non-Muslim historians, while disagreeing about the divine intervention, have generally accepted the story of religious fervour providing the cohesion and motivation for the Arabs’ lightning conquests. The religion came first, then the conquest.
Tom Holland is not so sure though. There is, he argues, very little contemporary evidence about the life of Muhammad. It is almost certain that he existed because there are Roman writers who mention him but beyond that, and the few references in the Quran, there is very little contemporary evidence. Most of the stories about his life were not written down until over a century after his death. If he had unified the whole of Arabia under the banner of a new religion, wouldn’t the Roman and Persian authorities have mentioned it? Both empires took a keen interest in Arabia and subsidised the tribes on their frontiers to keep them on side. They would surely have noticed if a large and potentially hostile tribal coalition was forming in Arabia. Yet the contemporary sources provide very little to corroborate the story of Muhammad’s rise to power.
Holland also questions the site of Muhammad’s birth. It could not, he argues, possibly have been where the current city is located. Mecca is too far away from trade routes to have been a trading city. It is also too far from Syria where members of Muhammad’s tribe were said to have property. The Mecca of the Quran, he says, must therefore have been considerably further north than the current site.
He isn’t even convinced that the Arab armies which trounced the Romans and Persians were led by Muslims. During the early years of the Arab Empire, there is little evidence of Islam being a prominent religion. It was only later, he argues, under the Umayyad dynasty, that Islam became central to the Empire and its rulers.
The conversion of the Arab Empire to Islam, says Holland, came some time after its creation and for similar reasons to the Roman Emperors’ enthusiasm for Christianity. Religion was a useful way of binding an empire together. It was during the rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs, the chapters of the Quran were collated, the sayings of Muhammad were documented, great mosques were built and the tradition of pilgrimage to Mecca established. What we now know as Islam, argues Holland, was not the catalyst for the Arab conquest of the Middle-East but the means by which those conquests were turned into a centralised empire.
Could it be, then, that the Arab conquest was not Muslim-led but the work of a confederation of tribes which included some adherents of Muhammad but also Christians, Jews and followers of other religions? Could a ramshackle coalition of tribes really have defeated two great superpowers at once?
Yes, says Holland, because both superpowers had exhausted themselves. With continuous warfare comes famine. As men are called to fight, fewer are left to farm. War destroys crops and manpower. A population weakened by war and famine then succumbs to plague. By the middle of the seventh century, both the Roman and Persian Empires were on their knees. In some parts, says Holland, it was difficult to distinguish between town and countryside. Fortifications had fallen into ruin and shanty towns of refugees sprawled around the once-proud cities. Both Rome and Persia struggled to raise armies from among their ravaged populations. Both sides had become increasingly reliant on Arab proxies to do their fighting for them. It was, therefore, a short step for the Arabs from acting as mercenaries to setting up on their own. They knew both empires were weak and took the opportunity to seize land. Once pushed, both the rotten superpowers collapsed and the Arabs found themselves with an empire. They didn’t need divine inspiration; their enemies were simply too weak to resist.
Is such a scenario plausible? It is when you look at what else was going on in the Roman Empire. In what probably looked like a sideshow at the time, but was to have far-reaching consequences in the Twentieth Century, Slavic tribes migrated from their homelands in Eastern Europe and overran the Balkans. The Danube had stood as the Roman frontier for half a millennium but the Romans could not stop the ancestors of today’s Serbs, Croats and Bulgarians from crossing it and seizing lands to within a few hundred miles of Constantinople. The Slavs had no centralised leadership and lacked the military capability of the Arabs, yet the Romans were powerless to prevent them setting up on their doorstep. What chance would they have had against a more formidable opponent invading Syria and Palestine? The Roman Empire was close to collapse. It is quite conceivable that a well organised tribal coalition could have conquered its Middle-Eastern territories.
As you might expect, all this has upset a lot of people. Calling into question the history of Islam, the stories of Muhammad’s life, the religious belief of the early Arab leaders and even the location of Mecca was always going to be controversial. A screening of Tom Holland’s film Islam: The Untold Story, based on some of the arguments in his book, was cancelled last year after threats were made. His book was savaged in the Guardian which, being the Guardian, also gave him the chance to reply. In The Shadow Of The Sword continues to be criticised, especially by Muslim writers.
Whatever your view, though, it is a thought-provoking book. If you are at all interested in history and religion, or simply in understanding how Europe, the Middle-East, Christianity and Islam came to be the way they are, this book is a must-read. I find Tom Holland’s arguments quite compelling. You might not. Either way, this book is a good read. I had the weighty hardback version but it’s out in paperback next week. Ideal for the daily commute.