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Decentering the Conquests: Peoples, Regions, and Identities in the Early Islamic Conquests

Panel XIII-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Studies of Islamic conquests in the first century AH/Seventh century CE commonly concentrate on the establishment of the nascent Islamic Empire and its quick rise against the older empires of the Byzantines and the Sasanians. Many of these studies are thus concerned with the events of the conquests as viewed from imperial and caliphal centres: Medina, Ctesiphon, and Constantinople. Similarly, the actors that receive most attention are those at these power centres, such as emperors, caliphs, and major commanders. However, as is obvious, conquests were not always concerned with conquering centres of power, nor was it really always done by holders of central power. The presentations in this panel will aim to look at the events of the early conquest from the peripheries and margins, both human and geographical. Concerned with the role of mercenary groups and individuals in the conquering armies, as well as conquests on the frontier zones, the presentations on this panel utilise different ways of approaching the history of the first Islamic century. The presentations forward studies of gender, ethnic identity, ethnogenesis, and social identity, particularly among the soldiers in the conquering armies. Individual case studies serve as ways of showcasing some of the new directions that the study of the Conquests has recently taken, hopefully guiding us to expand on such approaches and further decentre the conquests away from imperial and caliphal capitals.
  • Dr. Robert Haug -- Presenter
  • Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Alison Marie Vacca -- Chair
  • Dr. Ryan J. Lynch -- Presenter
  • Rana Mikati -- Presenter
  • Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani
    In the historiography of the early Islamic Conquests, there as an artificial division assumed between the conquests themselves and the military events that preceded them, namely the Sasanian conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean in 602-630 and the Byzantine responses to it. While the role of the Arabs of the Levant is sometimes considered as far as they relate to imperial policies of the Sasanians and the Byzantines, their role as the population of the war zone is commonly ignored. Similarly, the population of the Hijaz are seen as somehow standing outside the context of the Sasanian-Byzantine conflicts, only coming to "take advantage" of the situation following the collapse of the Sasanians and the loss of Byzantine territories in Syria and Egypt. The present paper sets out to view both sides of the artificial divide of "the Rise of Islam" from the point of view of local actors. Relying on new, closer readings of the Islamic histories and considering Armenian, Syriac, Greek, and Persian accounts, as well as the evidence of numismatics and archaeology, it aims to see the events of the period 602- 647 (the first phase of the conquests) as a coherent and connected set of events. It does this by concentrating on the fighting forces of the Sasanians on their desert frontier along the lower Euphrates and westward to Palestine. The hypothesis of the paper is that various forces fighting on behalf of the Sasanians, evolved into local warlords and forces, controlling the conquered land, and eventually joining, and becoming a major component of what we label "the Conquering Islamic Armies". In this sense, the paper will also make contributions to the debate over the name of the Conquests themselves as far as their sobriquet of "Arab", "Muslim" or "Islamic" is concerned.
  • Rana Mikati
    When a cavalryman at Yarmuk advanced through the ranks of the Byzantine army to challenge Khālid b. al-Walīd’s soldiers to a duel, the Muslim general turned to his men for a volunteer. The first to step forward was the companion, Maysara b. Masrūq al-ʿAbsī. Khālid b. al-Walīd, however, rejected his offer telling him: “You are an old man, and this Byzantine is a young man. I do not want you to go out to [duel with] him because an old man can hardly stand against a young man […].” Another champion offered his services. In this case, the Muslim soldier, ʿAmr b. Ṭufayl was sent back because, in the purported words of Khālid, “you are a young boy, and I fear that you cannot stand against him.” Following the Goldilocks principle, Khālid chose the ideal fighter to defend and represent the Muslim army, a man he deemed not too old and not too young and with the requisite experience to duel with the Byzantine soldiers. The chosen champion Qays b. Hubayra al-Muradī summarily dispatched the enemy, splitting his helmet and his head. The Byzantine fighter ignominiously fell dead between the forelegs of his horse, an omen of the Muslim victory to come. Descriptions of monomachies such as this one from al-Azdī’s Fuṭūḥ al-Shām and other such manifestations of “manly” behavior on the battlefield abound in conquest narratives. Still, they have generally been dismissed as unproductive topoi. This paper will use these elements of the conquest narratives to examine the constructions of gender identity in a martial context. I will mainly focus on how hegemonic masculinity was fashioned in relation to alternative masculinities. Specifically, the paper will contrast the portrayal of marginalized groups, such as women, enslaved men, the elderly, and youths on the battlefield, to that of the Muslim male elites to nuance and denaturalize hegemonic early Islamic masculinities. In this case study, I will mine the material in al-Azdī’s Futūḥ al-Shām, one of our earliest sources on the Islamic conquests that presents a sustained narrative of the events from the Ridda wars by Abū Bakr to the conquest of Syria.
  • Dr. Ryan J. Lynch
    The Arabic narrative sources concerning the early Islamic conquests are well-studied and, while being compiled into a written form many decades after the events they purport to describe, they remain an important well of information for our understanding of the spread of Islam and the establishment of the first Islamic states. After many decades of historical analysis of the central Islamic lands, the past several years have seen a growth in frontier studies within early Islamic history, including an increased focus on regions such as Transoxiana in Central Asia and the Maghreb in North Africa. Far less attention has been paid, however, to the conquest period’s most eastward extant: into the Indian subcontinent and South Asia more generally. This paper will consider the arrival of the early Islamic conquest armies into South Asia in the first century AH/seventh century CE, while also discussing what we can say about the process of the conquerors’ settlement in the region. In particular, it will focus on this reconstruction using the earliest extant narrative accounts that we have that discuss the conquerors’ process in the region that are found in the Kitāb Futūḥ al-Buldān (The Book of the Conquest of Lands) by the ‘Abbāsid-era courtier al-Balādhurī (d. ca. 279AH/892 CE). It will also provide commentary on the Arabic historiographical tradition associated with these accounts. It will discuss the reliance on this unique historical material used by al-Balādhurī and the textual reuse process by later Muslim authors, as this material from Futūḥ al-Buldān is amongst the most transmitted material utilized by later authors from al-Balādhurī’s book.
  • Dr. Robert Haug
    Narratives of the Arab Conquests of the seventh century can easily gravitate towards homogenized accounts of Arabs fighting against non-Arabs with similarly simplistic group identifications such as Persians, Greeks, Berbers, or Turks. Many recent studies have complicated these identities, bringing to life the complexities of Late Antique Near Eastern society. The political narratives of the early Islamic world illustrate how important tribal divisions were among the Arabs. Studies of the conquest of Iran have brought to light the various responses to the conquests based on class but also ethno-linguistic identity between Persians, Parthians, Sogdians, etc. Similarly, examinations of post-conquest society demonstrate how quickly slavery, concubinage, and marriage created a community whose members crossed many of these boundaries, even though they often found themselves described in singular terms, typically defined by their patrilineal descent. But, as key studies have noted, even these revisions leave matters simpler than reality. This paper will examine the complicated nature of identity during the Arab Conquests through the life of ʿAbdallah b. Khazim al-Sulami (d. ca. 692). Ibn Khazim participated in the conquest of Khurasan and became its governor on at least two occasions. Following the Second Fitna, he refused to acknowledge the Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik and was killed trying to flee beyond his reach. Ibn Khazim’s career is one defined by his Arab-ness, his membership in the Banu Sulaym, and connections to powerful relatives such as the governor of Basra Ibn ʿAmir. At the same time, his mother was an enslaved Black woman from Abyssinia and, in narratives of his various adventures, this aspect of his identity is often referenced as a way of differentiating him from other Arabs, often in a demeaning and antagonistic manner. How do portrayals of Ibn Khazim’s Blackness help us better understand identity and community formation during the period of the conquests? After arriving in Khurasan, Ibn Khazim had several sons with Iranian women, most notably Musa (d. 704), who led his own rebellion in Tirmidh following his father’s death. At Tirmidh, Musa brought together both Arab and non-Arab rebels, but reports of Musa’s rebel kingdom portray a clear division, with Musa aligned to his patrilineal identity. This paper further explores such reports to understand how Arabs of mixed parentage straddled the line between these communities in post-conquest society.