How Islam Spread: Veeery Slooowly
I am engrossed by Daniel Brown’s A New Introduction to Islam. It’s packed with juicy scholarship. A standard history will tell you that Islam swept the Middle East in the space of thirty years. What it won’t tell you is that for a long time this was only a military and political – not an ideological – victory:
No systematic sacking of cities took place, and no destruction of agricultural land occurred. The conquests brought little immediate change to the patterns of religious or communal life. There were no mass or forced conversions. Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian communities in Syria and Iraq may have felt threatened, but they continued to thrive. New synagogues, churches, and monasteries were still being built into the eighth century, and churches or synagogues were not converted to mosques on any noticeable scale. The first urban mosques were not built until after 690… [According to tradition, Muhammad died in 632. -B.C.]
I would have expected at least some token changes in economic policy, but Brown counters that:
[P]roduction of wine (forbidden by Islamic law) continued unchanged, and pigs (considered unclean by Muslims) continued to be raised and slaughtered in increasing numbers…
So what was the point of all these wars between Muslims and non-Muslims?
What did change was the ruling class. The new rulers spoke Arabic, represented a different ethnicity, and kept aloof from their conquered subjects… The new rulers continued to use Greek and Persian in adminstrative documents. They continued to mint Byzantine-style coins complete with the image of the emperor holding a cross, and Sasanian-style coins bearing Zoroastrian symbols and Sasanian dates…
Furthermore, many of the changes historians attribute to Islam – especially the spread of Arabs and Arabic – were already well-underway before the conquests:
Inscriptions show that substantial populations of Arabs lived in Syria, that settled Arabs had become well-integrated in Syrian-Byzantine society, and that the Arab population and influence in some towns grew rapidly in the century preceding the conquests…
Historians often remark that during the Middle Ages, the Muslim world’s relatively tolerant policies put Europe to shame. If Brown’s account is right, Muslim tolerance has earlier roots than I would ever have guessed.