Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 1: Muslim Invaders

March 3, 2011

This is part of a multi-part review of God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark. The summary is here. You can use the table of contents found there.

Muhammad told his followers in his farewell address, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no God but Allah’.  The Quran (9:5) says “Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare them for each ambush.” It was in this spirit that Muhammad’s heirs set out to conquer the world. When Muhammad was born, Christendom stretched from the Middle East all along North Africa and throughout Europe. With a century of his death, most of the Middle East, all of North Africa, Cyprus, most of Spain were Muslim ruled. Another century later,  Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete and southern Italy also came under Muslim rule. This chapter seeks to explain how this dramatic change took place.

Stark starts by reviewing the conquests of the Muslims. He goes against the historical consensus by arguing persuasively that the Muslims did not do this by outnumbering and overwhelming the Christian forces. He argues that most of their victories were achieved by relatively small numbers of troops.

In Syria, Muslim Arabs saw an attractive target. It was a familiar and fertile land. Its defenses were weak and many of the Byzantine forces were Arab mercenaries who were either willing to switch sides or at least be more prone to abandoning their defenses. The Syrian population resented the Byzantine rule and therefore some greeted the Muslims as liberators (not knowing that these liberators would be much harsher than their previous rulers).  Muslims entered Syria in 633 to little resistance. A second wave was greeted with more resistance but Muslims won a series of victories and took Damascus. Several tactical mistakes by the Greeks led to further defeats and Muslims established Damascus as their capital.

Similar stories can be told of the Muslim victories in Persia, The Holy Land, Egypt, North Africa, southern Spain, Sicily, southern Italy, and many Islands of the Mediterranean. Muslims were able to use the desert to outflank the Greeks. And a combination of dissatisfaction and disaffection of the populous against the Byzantine rulers created a passion deficit among the two warring sides. The Christian forces made several major tactical errors that allowed major cities to be taken that should not have been. All of this happened very fast and it is clear that the Christian forces were unable to react quickly enough to this new threat to do anything about it.

Stark dismisses the myth that Islam was tolerant of Christians and Jews as “nonsense”. He notes that, although the Quran forbids forced conversions,  the conquered masses were often asked to freely convert…..or die. Enslavement was another common option. If anyone converted from Islam to one of these faiths, death was the consequence. Humiliation of non Muslim religions was the official practice of many Muslim authorities. In many places non-Muslims were not allowed to wear the same clothes as Muslims; neither could they be armed.

Mass killings were not uncommon. The first Muslim mass murder happened under Muhammad when about 700 Jewish males were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves. Massacres of Jews and Christians became more common with time. For example, in 705, Muslim conquerors of Armenia assembled all the Christian nobles in a church and burned them to death.  Another horrific example was in the 11th century in Morocco more than 6000 Jews were murdered during two outbursts in Grenada. Another famous example was in the 16th century when Muslim invaders murdered “tens of thousands” of Christians in Cyprus.  Stark is careful to note that he is not necessarily making the case that Muslims were more brutal than contemporary Christian rulers but they were certainly not any better.

An interesting final point that Stark makes in this chapter is how long it took to convert the populations to Islam. In most cases, it was at least two centuries before Islam made up a majority of the population in Islamic ruled countries.

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