Review: In God's Path - The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire by Robert G. Hoyland

in god's path - arab conquests and the creation of an islamic empire by robert hoyland
In God's Path
One cannot help but be overwhelmed at places while watching The Message starring Anthony Quinn and directed by Moustapha Akkad. At several points you get a sense of how Arabs, in all their glory and zeal, spread out of Arabia to conquer the lands spread wide with only one mission: to spread Islam and instill the faith that there is no god but God. Al-Azhar University's support in making the film historically accurate is commendable but does it not deny the audience a wider, and probably more accurate, non-Islamic view of history? History can't be treated as a singular point of view traversing through the prism of past and presenting upon us a crystal clear narration of events that took place. At most what can be done to be accurate is to take a balanced view of differing and, often, opposing views. This usually will make the narrative bland but that's the price to paid for near-truth. Robert Hoyland's In God's Path is one of those few books which delve into historical complexities and yet do not pull the general reader into a quagmire of dynasties, tribes, families and places. He writes, "histories of the region up until AD 630 present an image of a largely Christian land, where Christ's word is fast gaining ground even in the deserts of Africa, the Persian Empire and as far as China. But when one turns to Muslim accounts to read about the post-630 world, then it appears that the prophet Muhammad's preaching was carried at breakneck speed from its birthplace". This alluring interpretation needs a re-visioning.

In God's Path is not only an excellent read about how the decline of Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire aided Islam's spread, but also a treatise on various historiographical sources. He writes, "the distinction I make is simply between earlier and later sources, and I favour the former over the latter irrespective of the religious affiliation of their author" because Muslim historians of that period downplayed the role of non-Arabs and non-Muslims and placed God, Muhammad and the Muslims at the centre stage. The commonly held belief is that religious fervour is what made the Islamic civilization so successful - and I myself have been witness to such proclamations by some very close friends of mine. But the author rightly questions this stance by asking that did the Byzantines or Persians have any less religious passion? Were the Pagans less protective of their idols? Fighting skills can't be had just be one's, however strong, attachment to a religion - "Arab tribesmen had been serving int he armies of Byzantium and Persia in large numbers in the fifth and the sixth centuries". The author categorically states that to understand the Arab conquests one needs to go back to the second and third centuries AD, when the Roman Empire "made a great push to the east" and over time came in conflict with the powerful Sasanian Dynasty of Persian Empire, who achieved numerous victories and "even managed to capture the Roman emperor".

Correlating events and presenting a fruitful justification is the author's strength. For example, he writes, "Islamic religious tradition came to be inimical to imperial government, Persian literature celebrated it and for this reason was enthusiastically adopted by imperial rulers like Mongols of Iran, Timurids of Central Asia and Mughals of India". Concluding the conquests, he states how the Arabs were able to set in motion two processes which helped to offset their political fragmentation; Arabisation (language and identity) and Islamisation (spread of Islam and developing an Islamic way in religion, politics, art, literature etc.). He even analyses how not only did Arabs influence culture and religion to whichever region they fared to but even they themselves assimilated the culture and language of the place they settled in - for example in Iran and Transoxania where, because of fewer Arabs, they took to learning Persian.

Numerous kings and places form an integral part of the book: Heraclius, Trajan's war, Septimius Severus, Khusrau, Constantinople, Caucasus, Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Khazars, Turks, Mongols, Samarkhand, Kashgar, Bulgars, Slavs and even Sindh, Gujarat and Buddhism and Chinese dynasties. Sometimes, however, it does become slightly taxing to the average reader to keep track of the various battles and events in different regions as the author covers them chronologically: in any given period, the author covers the major happenings in different regions like Spain, North Africa, Central Asia, Southern Russia and of course Arabia itself.

This scholarly book also clears away various Islamic myths which have propagated over hundreds of years. They make good for presenting a glorious past but do less justice to ground realities: the contribution of non-Arabs and non-Muslims in the spread of Islam; the presence of a State structure and processes borrowed from Byzantine and Persian empires - "corpus of law remained current (as it was influenced by Eastern and Roman law) after the Arab conquests, and was taken over and reworked by Muslim scholars"; the recruitment of nomads into Arab armies because the former were much more mobile; use of taxation to subjugate and convert the non-Muslims; large scale non-Arab recruitment in the armies; . He does end with an introspective question: why would the conquerors grant access to the conquered so easily just by paying taxes and resulting in the latter enjoying all benefits of the former? He hints at the numerical problem of having so many slaves from different regions of the world that it became difficult to separate them once they started converting to Islam. With unperturbed clarity, this book peels off the many layers of the spread of Islam and presents to the reader a balanced, objective version of the influences the conquerors had while conquering the world around them. A must read for anyone interested in a realistic portrayal of an often 'mystically narrated' saga.


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