14. Mohammed and the Arab Conquests


PAUL FREEDMAN: Now we’re
going to talk about Islam. And here we enter into a segment
that, in a sense, is the most relevant, if relevance
is a criterion, sort of is, to today’s world. Because these controversies
that play out today Shiism versus Sunni, for example, the
nature of Islam, its appeal as a religion on a world scale are
obviously established in the period that we’re
talking about. They were established slowly. One of the things that you’ll
have noticed from the assignment is that the author,
Berkey, emphasizes very much that Islam is slow in formation,
that it’s not fully grown as this militant movement
with a set of rules in 632, the year that
Mohammed dies. And because of that, then, it’s
not to be understood as some militant,
conversion-oriented, jihado-centric religion
from the start. I said at one point when we were
summarizing the end of the Roman Empire that there
were three heirs to the Roman Empire. One was the Church– ironic because, of course, the
Church had grown up persecuted by the Empire. The other was the Byzantine
Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire. Remember that it called itself
simply “the Roman Empire.” So that’s the most clear claim
being staked to succession to the Roman Empire. And that the third was Islam. And a couple of you said, well
Islam, that’s the most surprising of all, actually. And I didn’t really elaborate
at that time. And that’s not the center
of what we’re going to be talking about. Because time moves on. We’re in the seventh century,
the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west is
established two and a half, two centuries earlier. But Islam, although developed
in Arabia, outside of the Roman empire, and although very
strong in places like Persia or the western part of
India, would in many respects take up the inheritance of the
Roman and Byzantine Empires. The conquests on the
Mediterranean, in the east, and in the south; its
architectural and artistic style; its administrative
structure; and not least, the translation and elaborations
of Greek science, medicine, and other academic forms,
including, for example, the translation of Aristotle and
the influence of Aristotle would be signs of,
evidence of the significance of Islam within– it’s pointless to debate whether
it’s the Western tradition or what the Western
tradition means– but within the classical legacy,
within what it means to say that Rome as a polity
ceased to exist in the west and yet the classical world
has continued to influence society and ideas to this day. So in talking about the history
of Islam, one is inevitably going to
be emphasizing its revolutionary nature. And so I’m going to go against
the reading in some sense. Or the reading is intended to
go against the conventional way of presenting the early
history of Islam. And that can be sometimes
annoying. The writer is cautioning you
against views you never had. Or the writer keeps on saying,
“Well, we should not think that this”– and I hadn’t
thought that. Just tell me what you think
happened in early Islam. My apologies for that. Writers are always writing
against other writers. Scholars are always writing
against a prevailing interpretation. Berkey is a continuist, and
that is the scholarly consensus now, arguing against
this notion of Islam bursting forth like some kind of pent-up
explosion in Arabia. But Arabia is off the map. Islam as a movement, and
certainly the Arab conquests, are unpredictable events. They may be understandable later
in terms of developments in the Near East, both religious
and cultural, but up until the seventh century Arabia
was on the periphery of the two great controlling
empires to its north, namely Persia and Rome. And we are taking Byzantium
as the heir of Rome in this sense. The problem with Arabia is
that it is really dry. And before the discovery of oil,
or more precisely, before the discovery that oil was
useful, important, and valuable, it was a strikingly
impoverished land in terms of natural resources. “A terrible land,” as Isaiah
the prophet says. Isaiah 21:1; “the burden of
the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass
through it, so it cometh from the desert, from
a terrible land.” Now, Isaiah actually grew up
in what most of us would consider to be pretty
dry circumstances. The eastern Mediterranean,
modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria are hot and dry compared
to bounteous climes like New Haven. So the Eastern Mediterranean,
however, is a land of fertile oases, river valleys like the
famed Tigris/ Euphrates/ Fertile Crescent area, coastal
cities with commerce, whereas Arabia is essentially
a vast expanse of barely habitable terrain. It is isolated by the
sea on three sides. It has very few natural
harbors. There are no lakes, no forest,
no grasslands, even, and no rivers that run year-round. The only intrinsically favorable
part of it is the southwest corner,
modern Yemen. This was in the ancient world,
or at least to the Roman geographers, “Arabia Felix,”
Happy Arabia. Nice Arabia. And indeed, there were two
kingdoms that emerged here around 1000 BC. Harbors, oases, and these two
kingdoms controlled the spice and incense trade from India and
from the Horn of Africa. These are two extremely valuable
kinds of products for religious, gastronomic, and
medicinal purposes. And most of the spices
come from India. And most of the incense comes
from modern Somalia, Ethiopia, places along the Red Sea. By the time of Mohammed,
however, southern Arabia’s best days had passed. And Mohammed is, of course, from
central, and in the sense of its orientation, really,
northern Arabia. The worst desert in Arabia
is the south. So just when you get out of
Yemen going northeast you come to an area that still bears
the not really encouraging name, the Empty Quarter. This is really serious,
no-oases desert. Further north, however, in
places like Mecca or Medina, there is enough water for
settlement, though not enough for agriculture. A key event in the history of
Arabia is the domestication of the camel, which can be situated
around 1000 BC. Arabia, outside of the Yemenite
kingdoms, was mostly nomadic, though there were
trading cities of which the most famous are Mecca
and Medina. These cities were rather
cosmopolitan. They had Arabs and
other peoples. They had Christians, some of
whom were Arabs, some of whom were not, and Jews, many of
whom were also Arabs. They controlled overland trade,
again, from further east, bearing exotic products
like spices from India, organizing caravans. At times they would form
kingdoms, at times there would be Arab kingdoms in the north,
but generally these are feuding societies organized
along tribal lines. Looked at from the Roman or
Persian empire, Arabia was a little bit like the forests of
Germany: a hostile terrain– from the Roman point of view,
Persian point of view– inhabited by useful but
presumably barbarian and presumably not very interesting
people. This is the point of view
of the Bible as well. They are primitive people
bearing interesting products, inhabiting a land that’s
not worth having. Not worth invading, not
worth owning, not worth dealing with. The first mention of Arabs
seems to be 854 BC when, according to a Syrian
inscription, a certain Gindibu, the Arab, contributed
1,000 camels to forces revolting against
the Assyrians. The Arabs, henceforth, after
854 mentioned often in Babylonian and Persian texts. They’re always frontiersmen or
people inhabiting a land beyond a frontier. Questions so far? OK. Not all Arabs are nomads, but
the Bedouin, Bedouin in this sense meaning Arab nomad, is
sort of the Ur Arab, the original Arab, the defining
archetype and the original colloquial meaning
of the word Arab. In a way the Bedouins are a
little like the Germanic tribes, an analogy I’ll mention
but I don’t want to push too hard. They form extended kinship
units, that is to say they know who their second cousins
are and care about them. And these extended kinship
units form a kind of tribal structure. This notion of tribe remains
important to this day. You’ll have seen, in accounts
of post-Qaddafi Libya, for example, the cliche and probably
accurate, is there is no tradition of government. Qaddafi didn’t govern,
he just tyrannized. And there are no civil
institutions. It is divided by tribal
loyalties. What does tribe mean in that? I actually don’t know
in terms of Libya. It is a way of saying the people
do not have loyalty to the state, but to some extended
kinship group, or what’s sometimes called “fictive
kinship group.” I’m not really related to you, but
we have either the same name or we’re from the same place or
we consider each other kin and therefore have a
certain protective sense about each other. This is very useful if you
don’t have a government. We’ve already spoken about this
in terms of our question of what held Merovingian
society together. Your second cousin becomes
important to you if there’s no police force, if there’s no
way of making sure that someone is not going to kill
you just for fun or because they got angry at you. Under the circumstances we live
in, we don’t care about our second cousins. We don’t know who they are. We don’t expect anything
from them. In a society in which family
is not just a sentimental attachment, but it actually is
what is protecting your life, kinship is very important. Bedouins as well as
Germans, then. The problem with kinship is that
while it’s a very solid attachment, it’s also
an irritant. And here we’re not talking about
arguments over whose Christmas is better or who gets
the Venetian glass vase after Mom and Dad’s death, we’re
talking about terrible arguments, feuds that are
within a kinship group. So you have feuds within the
kin groups or tribes, and feuds between tribes,
accentuated in this case often by water. Water, a scarce resource,
obviously, and one that people fight about a lot in terms
of territorial feuds. So the Bedouins tend to have
more feuds than the Germans. There’s no Bedouin equivalent
of wergild. Remember, the wergild is the
price that you have to pay to make someone have peace with
you, even if you’ve killed their relatives. It’s the worth of a person. It’s compensation. And then other people can
be assessed on the basis of some tariff. So women may be 2/3 of a man,
a pregnant woman may be one and a half times a man,
and so forth. We saw this in the
Burgundian Code. Key to the Burgundian Code is
this notion of compensation, that money related to the
nature of the loss. One finger, two fingers, right
hand, left hand, is compensation. Bedouin don’t have that idea of
compensation, of tariffs, of wergild. In both the Bedouin and the
German societies, the ruler has a limited amount of power. These are, I wouldn’t want to
say democratic societies in terms of some theory of
representation, but they’re not societies in which one
person’s will is obeyed unquestionably. They are consultative. They are more like gangs
in that sense. There’s a leader, but his
control is conditional on the loyalty of his most powerful
subordinates. And his most powerful
subordinates are quite capable of overthrowing him. The Bedouin sheik is a
little different from the Germanic king. And by Germanic king I mean not
the kings that we’ve seen in the settled post-Roman,
Merovingian empire, but the kings as described by Tacitus
with possible greater or lesser accuracy. In the Germanic tradition,
the king is a war leader. In the Bedouin tradition, the
sheik is an arbiter, a settler of disputes. Both societies exalted custom,
and both had an exacting standard of masculinity. The Germans practiced agriculture and herded animals. The Bedouins don’t have
agriculture, and they supplement their herding
of animals by raids on wealthier society. These raids, called “razzia,”
are important because the Islamic conquests that we’re
going to be talking about on Wednesday may be said
to begin as raids. They begin as raids, and then
they discover that there’s almost nobody there. That the Byzantine army and the
Persian army are crippled by fighting against
each other. So what begins by raids
becomes conquests. So we come to Mohammed. At first glance it would seem
that Mohammed is a religious leader whose career takes place
in what a French scholar of religion called “the full
light of history.” 620s AD may not seem like the full light of
history, but Mohammed as a historical figure at least seems
to emerge more clearly than Abraham or Moses
or Jesus. But, as you have read,
Mohammed’s biography is hopelessly entwined
with legend. What we know about Mohammed is
what later Islamic and Arab commentators wanted to have
happened to Mohammed. There are several sources for
the life of Mohammed, and for thus the early years of Islam. There are formal biographies,
called sira, S-I-R-A. The problem with these is they
were written long after Mohammed’s death– a hundred
years, at least. There are collections of oral
tradition, called hadith, H-A-D-I-T-H, to which,
similarly, there are sayings, proverbs. These are also questionable,
because although they were put together within fifty years of
Mohammed’s death, they’re very heavily influenced by the first
civil war of the 650s, which we will be talking about
the day after tomorrow. And then there’s the Koran,
which is supposed to represent the words of Mohammed as
composed by divine inspiration. The Koran itself is a text that
scholars outside of the Islamic tradition have
questioned in terms of when it was put together, how
much by Mohammed, how soon after Mohammed. The problem with all these
sources is not that they are unreliable in the sense of
fabrication, but that they tend to shape events in light
of what the writers already know happens and in light of
what they think should happen. So that, as an example, we’ll
be talking about this in a moment, but you’re all aware
that in 622 Mohammed moves suddenly from Mecca to Medina. He maybe can be said
to flee Mecca. This is called the Hegira, or
Hijra in the Berkey book. H-E-G-I-R-A or H-I-J-R-A,
depending on just how faithful you think you’re being
to the Arab original. The Hegira is a key event
in Islamic history. It is the point from which
Islamic dating is done. That is to say the
Islamic calendar starts with the Hegira. So this year is the year of
the Hegira such and such. I can’t do 2011 minus 622
immediately, but that’s the Islamic year. According to the traditional
historical record, the Meccans tried to assassinate Mohammed,
and he escaped, narrowly, this attempt. There’s no real evidence of this
degree of hostility on the part of people in Mecca. There’s no evidence of an
assassination attempt, or at least independent evidence. And the assassination attempt
seems to be something that is important for the story, for
the way that the story is presented later, to dramatize
something that may not have been at the time as dramatic
as it seemed. It may have been that the
Meccans simply didn’t listen to Mohammed and then
he accepted an invitation to Medina. It may be that they were trying
to sort of shut his movement down. But that they resorted to
assassination does not seem to be very likely. OK, so having given you all of
these fatiguing caveats about what we do and do not know,
let’s say Mohammed was born between 570 and 580. He was born into a reasonably
prominent but not really very affluent family of Mecca. He may have been a merchant. It is usually assumed he was,
and this is partly because the Koran has a lot of mercantile
similes. In order to elucidate various
points, comparison is made with trade, but there’s
no real evidence. We don’t really know what
he did for a living. We know that he married well. His first wife, Khadija,
K-H-A-D-I-J-A, was from a wealthy family, a higher class
family than Mohammed’s own. And we also know that Mohammed
got his start as a religious thinker, as a prophet, at the
age of forty, an encouragement to those of us who are
slow to get our careers off the ground. The discouraging part is that
his career only lasts a relatively brief time. He dies ten years after the
Hegira, but he does accomplish an awful lot. What was his religious
experience? What was the revelation
vouchsafed to him that he preached to the citizens
of Mecca beginning around 615 to 620? It is certainly a message of
monotheism against what was considered to be a prevailing
paganism, or polytheism on the part of the merchants and
tribesmen of Arabia. But as we’ve said, Arabia
had lots of Jews and Christians as well. And it’s a little tricky to tell
how much Mohammed would have known about Judaism
and Christianity. But it looks as if he did. And indeed, it looks as if his
preaching begins as a kind of biblical monotheism
for the Arabs. It is a message to the Arabs
congruent with the message of Judaism and Christianity, the
message of Judaism and Christianity being understood as
a statement of the unity of God and a progressive
interpretation of God’s message by a series of prophets,
a series of prophets beginning with Abraham,
including Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, according to Islam,
and Mohammed. Mohammed is then in the
line of prophets. The degree to which this means
that Islam takes on its own identity is hard to say. And the tendency of scholars
outside of the Islamic tradition, that is people like
Berkey, is to say it takes quite a while. Takes quite a while for there
to be the confidence that Islam is a religion that is
different from Judaism and Christianity, while it is clear
from the start that the people who are embracing it
are different, even though there are Arab and Jewish
Christians, and we’ll see what that means in a moment. Mohammed’s first converts are
his family circle and a group of key friends. And they’re all important
historically. His wife, his cousin Ali, who
would marry his daughter Fatima, a merchant named Abu
Bakr, a powerful member of one of the leading clans or family
groups of Mecca, Uthman, sometimes spelled– I think in the Berkey book
spelled with a U, so we’ll use the U. Uthman, right, Ali, I’ve
mentioned, Abu Bakr. Uthman is a member of
the Umayyad family. And Omar. These are sort of considered
to be the inner circle of very, very early converts. As I said, according to
tradition the ruling circles of Mecca became fearful as
what had been a fringe movement started to gain
more converts. The people who ruled Mecca
feared that their control was slipping from their grasp, and
they feared that this new movement was popular
with a lower class. The leading clan of Mecca
were the Quraish. These are the people who are
most powerful in Mecca and begin as the enemies of Mohammed
and are responsible for driving him out, if indeed
he was driven out. In 622 the city of Medina,
another merchant center, invited Mohammed to come as a
kind of arbiter or ruler who was above factions and who
could then settle their internecine disputes. This is not an uncommon
pattern. You’ll see it in late
medieval and Renaissance Italy, in fact. The podesta in Italian cities
is an outsider who is empowered with very extensive
police powers to quell feuds. In Romeo and Juliet, for
example, there’s a podesta, but he’s not able to
solve the feud. But that’s the kind of scene
that we can imagine as the western equivalent of Medina. Muhammad is invited as a wise
man, as an arbiter, as a reconciler to the city
of Medina, an offer that he accepts. And it is in Medina that we
really start to see emerge what can be called an
Islamic identity. I tend to think a little bit
earlier than Berkey, because here Islam starts to
differentiate itself from Judaism and Christianity. And indeed, the period at Medina
culminates with the expulsion of Jewish groups who
refuse to accept Mohammed. What he does at Medina also is
to preach that the religious loyalty is more important than
loyalty to the tribal group. The religious loyalty therefore
is not simply a accompaniment to your already
existing identity; it is the most important aspect
of your identity. It’s at Medina that Mecca
replaces Jerusalem as the point of orientation
for prayer. It’s at Medina that Mohammed
stopped celebrating Yom Kippur and institutes a month-long
fast during the daylight hours, Ramadan. At Medina, Friday becomes
the Sabbath, not Saturday or Sunday. And the Jews are expelled
from Medina. And by Jews I don’t mean some
kind of foreign community of non-Arabs who happen to be
living in Medina, but rather Jews, some of whom came
from elsewhere, many of whom were Arabs. And it’s also here that Mohammed
perfects this notion as against the Christians and
Jews who have scorned him that he is the Seal of the Prophets, the last of the prophets. From Abraham to Jesus,
now to Mohammad. This is the last prophecy. God’s message has not been
packaged into one deal, one file too large for one
email attachment. And it’s come in a bunch of
them, and this is it. Here are all the cute cat
pictures and all of the– whole file, which you now can
download in segments. But it’s over. This is it. The Jews and Christians are
wrong to think that either it ended with Elijah or that the
be all and end all of all prophecy was Jesus. No. No. This is the truth. But keep in mind that Islam did,
and at least is supposed to, respect Judaism and
Christianity as not merely precursors, but as part
of the same tradition. “People of the Book” is the term
often used in Islam to describe Judaism and
Christianity. They share the same, if not
scripture exactly, but the same kind of historical
religious orientation. The criticism that Islam can
make against Christianity is that it tends to be
polytheistic. And as you know, Islam expands
great care to make sure that the human form does
not appear in art. And in some forms of Islamic
art that not even animals appear. Depiction of the human
figure is proscribed. Great care is made in
differentiating Mohammed from what Muslims see as the
exaggerated stature of Jesus. Mohammed is a prophet. He is a messenger of Allah,
not to be identified with Allah himself. There is no depiction
of Mohammed. People do not have pictures
of him in their houses. There are no statues to him. Mohammed’s greatest challenge
was to overcome these tribal loyalties in favor of the umma,
U-M-M-A, the community of the faithful. He allowed property and marriage
to be decided still by tribal tradition, but
prohibited feuds and required that disputes be arbitrated
in religious courts. This is important. Because Mohammed, like the
rabbis of the Diaspora in Judaism, is both a religious
leader and a judge. He is a community leader
and a spiritual leader. And indeed, these two things are
not really distinguished. I emphasize this because it’s
really different from Christianity. In Christianity, there’s a
church and there’s a legal, secular state. Sometimes, and of course the
Middle Ages to some extent defined by this, the Church
will have what look like secular powers. We’ve talked about this with
regard to the bishops and Gregory of Tours. At times the papacy, later,
would claim all sorts of political powers. But conceptually in
Christianity, because Christianity was an illegal
religious brotherhood within the Roman Empire for over two
centuries, church and state are different. In Islam, one can’t really talk
about church or clergy. There are religious leaders who
have political authority, but their authority is what we
would call that of a judge and that of a religious leader
at the same time. The political order
and the religious community are the same. That’s why when we talk about
the Arab conquest or the Islamic conquest, we’re talking
about something in which the new territories are
taken over by a state that’s not a theocracy in the sense
of the church’s ruling the state, but something in which
the church and state are not to be distinguished. We’ll talk about this more when
we come to the conquests. Within two years of the
Hegira, 622, so by 624 Mohammed was planning to take
over Mecca, to re-enter in triumph the city that he had
fled, if not under cover of darkness at least under
murky circumstances. A victory in battle in 624 gave
Mohammed the confidence to expel Jews and Christians
from Medina and to take on this title of Seal
of the Prophets. And by 627 Medina gained the
upper hand, and in 630 Mecca fell to Mohammed
and his forces. And all of the tribes of Mecca
and of the surrounding areas submitted to Mohammed. They recognized him as
a political as well as religious leader. Again, the two things not easily
to be distinguished. And then Mohammed died. In 632 he died, and what is
remarkable is that the momentum he established was able
to survive his demise. Because most of the tribes
probably thought that their loyalty was to him as a prophet
and a person, and not to some sort of institution that
would survive his death. And indeed, his death would
usher in a period of incredibly rapid expansion. Within a few years of Mohammed’s
death, Damascus, the great city of the eastern
Mediterranean, Byzantine Damascus, would fall to the
Arabs, the first of many such conquests that we will be
marching through on Wednesday. But this question of religious
loyalty would be exacerbated by splits within Islam, which
we’ll also be describing. The tenets of Islam, just to
close by way of our last remarks for the day Islam means
“surrender.” And to surrender oneself to the power
of Allah is the beginning of wisdom, beginning of faith. Acknowledgement of Allah is
acknowledgement a strict monotheism, acknowledgement of
Mohammed as the messenger prophet of Allah, and
as the last prophet. The so-called “five pillars of
Islam” are duties incumbent on the believer. And these are the confession
of faith that I just mentioned, daily prayers, five
times a day, the giving of alms, the observance of Ramadan,
and the performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca
if that’s possible. What’s not there is
interesting, too. What’s not intrinsic to Islam
is a strong sense of sin. The Arabs do not like the
Confessions of Saint Augustine, are not interested
in this particular form of spiritual investigation. The believer can pray
directly to Allah. There is really no Islamic
clergy in the sense of presiding over sacraments
or channels of grace. The mosque is a gathering
place. it is not a place that has some
kind of powerful holy objects in it, in the sense
that a church in this era would have relics or Eucharistic
hosts and other very powerful, sacred things. Islam is a religion of conduct
and law, not of mortification and purgation. It emphasizes upright behavior:
no drinking, no gambling, certain dietary
restrictions. Not the renunciation of the
world– it does not say, “Sell everything you have and give
it to the poor.” It says, “Give alms.” It is a moderate religion,
actually. It is a “do-able” religion. These obligations may be
somewhat inconvenient at times, Ramadan for example, but
there is nothing in here to the degree that the New
Testament, for example, prescribes behavior that
most people are not going to follow. Or that traditional
Judaism, possible but certainly onerous. Lots of obligations. The other difference, more
important, with Judaism is that Islam would be very
quickly universal. In other words, it would
encourage conversion, although not, as we will see, with
great enthusiasm. It is completely erroneous to
think that these armies that burst forth from Arabia after
the death of Mohammed were intent of getting everybody
to follow Mohammed. They were intent on conquest,
all right. But we’ll see that their goals
were a little more complicated than that of orienting everybody
towards this new faith, whatever we’re
going to call it. And we’ll see more about that
the day after tomorrow. Thanks.

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