Robert G. Hoyland. In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
This recent study by Robert Hoyland offers a fresh look at an old topic. Indeed, the seemingly rapid success of the Arab conquests has been a topic of interest in Western Islamic studies since its inception. (For instance, Sir William Muir’s long study The Caliphate: its Rise, Decline, and Fall published in the late 19th century covers the same period and integrates many of the same battles into a political narrative of the caliphate). Hoyland’s new book, however, like much of his other work, seeks to re-locate the basic narrative known from Arabic texts and materials (upon which Muir and many subsequent scholars have primarily relied) in a broader story about empire and religion in the Late Antique Near East.
The structure of the book is straightforward. An introductory chapter (pp. 1-7) outlines the approach of the book and the nature of the sources used. The first chapter (“The Setting,” pp. 8-30) sketches the political and cultural circumstances of the region in the seventh century, including locating the Arabs, historically thought of as somewhat secluded in the peninsula, within a larger network. Of course, explaining the rise of an Islamic empire as a response to decline in the Roman and Sasanian empires is not a novel approach. Hoyland departs in analyzing the Arabs as a “peripheral people” that had specific political ties to both the Roman and Sasanian empire and thus gained a broader perspective for their own political ambitions. In addition to the tendency of Late Antique religions to be “inextricably linked with power” (p. 13), then, the Arabs were players on the same stage as their empire-forming predecessors, working in parallel to contemporary “peripheral peoples” (like the Turks and Avars—cf. p. 65).
The next five chapters (i.e., chapters two through six) advance in brief intervals through the chronology of the conquests (roughly, every ten to thirty years from 630-750 CE) and are largely analogous in structure. Each one includes several sections summarizing events across multiple regions, and concludes with a handful of thematic passages. For instance, the third chapter (“Eastward and Westward, 640-652,” pp. 66-102) discusses developments (e.g., relative dating of battles, sequences of troop movements, political events in imperial centers, and a smattering of anecdotes illustrating particular details) in Egypt; Nubia and Ethiopia; Cyrenaica and Tripolitania; Iran; Caucasia; and Cyprus and Arwad. Hoyland then turns to consider “The Success of the Arab Conquests” (pp. 93-97) and “The Beginnings of Arab Government” (pp. 98-102), offering commentary on the conditions that drove the conquests and permitted their success, as well as efforts made to hold the gains made (primarily by founding of garrisons and development of taxation structures). The narrative culminates in a seventh chapter, “The Making of Islamic Civilization” (pp. 207-230), in which the “raw materials” of the conquered cultures, provided with the religious and political framework brought by the Muslims, gave rise to a new synthesis known as Islamic civilization.
Hoyland’s narrative is smooth, and his implicit periodizing of the conquests reads logically, though it is not (nor does he claim it to be) revolutionary. His periods correspond roughly to traditional political eras in the caliphate: the second chapter covers that of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar (stabilization and expansion); the third is that of ‘Uthmān and ‘Alī (civil war and retrenchment); the fourth that of the Sufyānids, Mu‘āwiya and his son and grandson (stabilization and expansion); the fifth that of the Marwānids, the longest at a full 35 years (civil war, retrenchment, and subsequent expansion).
There are a number of points that make Hoyland’s book useful for the study of Late Antiquity. First and foremost, as discussed above, Hoyland explicitly locates the Arab conquests within the broader picture of empire and conquest in Late Antiquity. As he outlines in the introduction (pp. 2f.), he reframes the conquests as an empire in development—as an interlocking process of advance, retreat, and adaptation, rather than a lightning war to be treated separately from the subsequent years of imperial rule. This reframing is possible when relying on chronicles and other sources produced by non-Muslims in the conquered lands. He argues that emphasizing these sources over the Arabic narrative material provides a better sense of the development of the empire and the choices faced in the various local contexts it entered. (In terms of both his periodization and his attempt to reframe the conquests in this matter, Hoyland’s study is somewhat akin to K.Y. Blankinship’s approach in his 1994 monograph, The End of the Jihâd State: the Reign of Hishâm Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads.)
Second, Hoyland unites the long history of the initial conquests (stretching more or less from Muḥammad’s death in 632 until they ground to a halt in the 740s) into one story. In this regard, Hoyland adds strength and detail to the old argument made by P. Brown (echoed by G. Fowden) that the ‘Abbāsid empire was the culmination of Late Antique dynamics (hence chapter seven). In one sense, Hoyland’s chronology follows a straighter path than those outlined by either Brown or Fowden. But in another, Hoyland’s study is very much in line with their attempts to unearth larger dynamics at work in the region and across apparent borders.
Third, Hoyland aims to re-think the relationship between the conquests and religion. In the introduction, he slights earlier interpretations of the conquests for emphasizing their “religious zeal” to the exclusion of material interests and adding that contemporary sources (i.e., the “non-Islamic” ones) often use “ethnic rather than religious terms” anyway (p. 5) and that material interests might be explained according to the mission of Muḥammad and his message (p. 63f). Though not emphasized, this re-orientation provides a sense of the way in which Islam could function very much as a frame for understanding and justifying worldly action. Further, it provides another perspective on the development of an Islamic communal identity and its relationship to the progress of the conquests.
It is worth noting that Hoyland in his bibliography only includes works published in the last ten years or so (barring some classics in the field). But Hoyland’s study synthesizes historical material diverse in type and in provenance with a number of recent studies with significant implications for understanding the conquests. In sum, the study’s vision is uncommonly broad, and provides useful insights to scholars of Late Antiquity and beyond.
Andrew McLaren is a PhD Candidate in Islam at Columbia University.