BMCR 2022.09.18

Late Antique responses to the Arab conquests

, , , Late Antique responses to the Arab conquests. Cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, 5. Leiden: Brill, 2022. Pp. xiv, 274. ISBN 9789004500617. €110.00 / $133.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book has its origin in a Dutch symposium on Late Antiquity and Early Islam organized by the Zenobia Foundation in 2015. That resulted in the publication of a collection of 10 papers (excluding the introduction) entitled Mohammed en de Late Oudheid (Verloren, 2018). Of these original 10 papers, 7 are republished here in English translation, 3 have been omitted, and 2 new papers (Webb, Cordoni) have been added. Hence this remains substantially the same volume as the initial Dutch-language publication despite a very different title. However, the new title is as misleading in its own way as that of the original Dutch publication. While the first title may have suggested an emphasis on the biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad that was entirely lacking within the book itself, the new title could easily lead one to expect an emphasis on how the surrounding states, primarily the Byzantine empire, struggled both militarily and intellectually to adjust to the emergence of a new Arab empire. In fact, the emphasis remains primarily on the change wrought within the new Arab empire itself and, surprisingly, upon that wrought upon the conquerors themselves rather than upon the conquered. Only one (Vroom) of the nine papers (excluding the introduction) considers the effects that the growth of this new Arab empire had upon those situated outside of it. Since this volume is intended to contribute to the study of the transition from Late Antiquity to Early Islam, some combination of these terms could have provided a less misleading title instead.

A lengthy and well-written introduction does everything that one could expect of it. It begins with a discussion of problems in the so-called Pirenne Thesis, the idea that it was the expansion of an Arab empire that brought about an end to Antiquity and heralded in the Middle Ages, before then describing the changing approaches to the study of Early Islam that have emerged over the last century and a half, the point being that it is now generally recognised that early Islamic culture does not represent a sudden break with Antiquity but can only be properly understood in its late antique context as a transformation of what had been there before. It then concludes with a careful explanation of how the papers in the current volume contribute to this new approach to the emergence of Islam. Although the contents page does not attempt to group the 9 papers that follow the introduction together in any way, the introduction explains that they do in fact fall into three different groups. After the introduction, the first three papers (Wilde, Weststeijn, Motzki) focus on the Qur’ān, with the main emphasis being on the need to interpret it in its late antique historical context. A second group of four papers highlight the gradual nature of the cultural changes from Late Antiquity to Early Islam (van Bladel, Webb, Sijpesteijn, Al-Jallad), with the emphasis very much on the changes to the self-identity and cultures of the conquerors. Finally, the last two papers (Cordoni, Vroom) focus on the different ways in which two groups outside of the conquerors, the inhabitants of the Byzantine ports of south-eastern Europe and the Jewish religious authors of Arab-occupied Palestine, were forced to adapt to the growth of the Arab empire. Despite their different themes, the papers cohere strongly together because the emphasis remains mainly on developments during the seventh and early-eighth centuries AD. I will now comment in brief upon the argument of each paper, grouping them in the manner just described.

In the first group, Wilde re-examines the significance of Sura 30: 2-5 which contains the only reference to al-Rūm, “the Romans”, or Byzantines as they are normally known in English, within the Qur’ān. It briefly mentions that the Byzantines have been defeated “in a nearby land”, but that they will prevail “within a few years”. Medieval Muslim exegetes interpreted this to refer to an initial Byzantine defeat followed by a subsequent Byzantine victory during the war between Byzantium and Persia in 602-28, but Wilde argues that it could refer instead to the Byzantine role in the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Ḥimyar (Yemen) in the early sixth century. I remain to be convinced, however, because the Byzantines did not play a significant enough part during the struggle over Ḥimyar to be singled out in the way that Sura 30: 2-5 singles them out. Next, Weststeijn re-examines the significance of Sura 16:67 which describes the taking of “intoxicant and good provision” from “the fruit of palms and vines”, that is, wine. Many medieval exegetes interpreted this verse to be in praise of wine in stark contrast to the attitude taken by all of the other verses within the Qur’ān mentioning wine that are strongly critical of it, creating a problem that could only be solved by dating this verse earlier than the rest and claiming that the attitude to wine changed over time during the alleged revelation of these verses. Weststeijn re-examines this verse in the light both of late antique ideas concerning purity and impurity and its own context among a series of verses contrasting purity and impurity to argue that it is actually negative about wine and contrasts the purity of the fruit itself (“good provision”) to the impurity (“intoxicant”) of the wine that can also be derived from it. The argument is clear and convincing. Finally, Motzki describes by means of his treatment of a tradition concerning an event in the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad the historical-critical method he has developed for tracing the origin and evolution of a historical tradition in Islamic sources. The key to this method lies in the careful analysis of the chain of authorities provided by most Islamic sources for the traditions that they transmit (asānīd, singular isnād). Nevertheless, there remains a gap of about a century between the alleged event in the life of Muhammad and its earliest known transmission and it is clear that this method cannot resolve all doubts about the historicity of such traditions. In this case, the question of whether this event accurately reflects the origins of several verses in the Qur’ān or was simply invented on the basis of these verses must remain open.

In the second group, Van Bladel offers a new model for understanding the differing rates and speeds of Arabicization and Islamicization within the different regions of the Arab empire. He argues that older explanations of Arabicization, claims such as that non-Arabs were forced to learn Arabic because it was the language of power, do not suffice to explain it because they do not explain the different rates and speeds of this process in the different regions. His argument is that the main factor driving this process was contact with Arabic-speakers, and that the opportunity for this varied according to different types of settlement in the different regions, so that it was faster in areas where Arabs dispersed among existing settlements and slower where they concentrated in newly founded garrison cities. He also argues that Islamization typically followed Arabicization. His argument seems very plausible, but far more data is needed to prove it beyond a doubt. Next, when Webb refers to the response of the “elite” to the establishment of the caliphate, he refers only to the response of the conquerors and their descendants, not to that of the elite among the conquered and their descendants. His argument is that the initial conquerors did not self-identify as Arabs or recognize that they came from a place called Arabia and that their descendants did not do so either until the end of the first century AH/ seventh century AD. It was only then that changing social and political circumstances forced peoples from different groups and regions within what is now called the Arabian peninsula to adopt a common identity. His evidence for this lies in the changing language of the poetic corpus between pre-Islamic and late-seventh century periods. The argument seems persuasive, but the non-specialist in the area will require further clarification of a number of issues. Were the social and linguistic differences between the various groups in the Arabian peninsula really so large that they did not perceive some sort of common identity already before the growth of empire? Most importantly, what exactly was understood by Arabness and how or why did the descendants of the conquerors decide that this was the commonality by which they wanted to identify themselves? Next, Sijpesteijn narrows the focus to developments in one region, Egypt. She uses the papyrological evidence to investigate to what extent the Arab administration in Egypt continued or broke with the practices of the preceding Byzantine administration during its first century, with a focus on documentary procedures and material culture. The conclusion is that there was a great deal of continuity until changes intended to promote greater Arabicization and Islamicization were introduced in the early eighth century. Finally, Al-Jallad discusses the date of a short Arabic inscription from Jordan and its potential contribution to the understanding of the development of Arabic script. The inscription blesses a certain “Yazīd the King” whom Al-Jallad seeks to identify with the caliph Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya (680-83), but his argument in support of this identifications seems severely abbreviated as he rushes to his purely palaeographic analysis of the text. For example, he vaguely refers to a few sixth-century Yazīds from south-central Arabia who could potentially be identifiable with the subject of this inscription (p. 198), but provides no further detail at all about these individuals.

In the third group, Codroni investigates Jewish literary sources of the eighth to tenth centuries, primarily the Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer, to see how they respond to the rise of a new Arab empire. She focusses on three themes, Jewish response to the Islamic treatment of Ishmael, the son of Abraham, Jewish reworking of the idea of the “world kingdoms” in Daniel 2 and 7 in response to this new empire, and the role of the Arab empire in the Jewish eschaton. Finally, Vroom discusses archaeological deposits from Athens in Greece and Butrint in Albania in order to highlight what they reveal about changing patterns of Mediterranean trade during the seventh to ninth centuries. However, while she does provide hard figures about the origins of deposits in Athens (p. 254), she does not provide similar figures in the case of the deposits in Butrint, so making it more difficult than it needs be to engage in a meaningful comparison of the results from the two sites

In summary, this is a cohesive, well-written volume that should appeal to anyone interested in the transition from Late Antiquity to Early Islam. The papers are scholarly, but have generally been written in such a way as to make them accessible to a readership that does not specialize in Islamic studies, but wants to learn more about the early Islamic period. It has also been produced to a very high standard.[1]

Authors and titles

1. Late Antique Responses to the Arab Conquests: An Introduction (Josephine van den Bent, Floris van den Eijnde, Johan Weststeijn)
2. The Qur’ānic Rūm: A Late Antique Perspective (Clare Wilde)
3. Wine and Impurity in the Sura of the Bees: A Structuralist Interpretation of Qur’ān16:67 (Johan Weststeijn)
4. Historical-Critical Research of the Sīra of the Prophet Muhammad: What do We Stand to Gain? (Harold Motzki)
5. Arabicization, Islamization, and the Colonies of the Conquerors (Kevin van Bladel)
6. Continuity and Change: Elite Response to the Founding of the Caliphate (Peter Webb)
7. Muhammad’s World in Egypt (Petra M. Sijpesteijn)
8. “May God be Mindful of Yazīd the King”: Further Reflections on the Yazīd Inscription and the Development of Arabic Scripts (Ahmad Al-Jallad)
9. Of Siblings, Kingdoms, and the Days of the Messiah: Jewish Literary Responses to the New Order in the Land of Israel in the First Muslim Period (Constanza Cordoni)
10. New Light on the Dark Ages: A Byzantine Perspective on the Arab Expansion (Joanita Vroom)


[1] I noticed very few factual or typographical errors. E.g. on p. 5, n. 20, Arculf is mistakenly described as a specifically Burgundian rather than merely Gallic bishop and the reference to On the Holy Places, 30.16 should be corrected to 2.30.16; on p. 247, the date of the death of general Belisarius is mistakenly given as 665 rather than 565.