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Why did the Arabs thrive while the Huns and Avars died out? Islam

Last night’s documentary on the birth of Islam illustrates how powerful religion made Arabic culture

By on Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Mideast Saudi Arabia Hajj

Last night’s programme on Channel Four fronted by the historian Tom Holland, entitled Islam: the Untold Story, which was presumably designed to tie in with his recent book on the subject, was, to my mind, a model of what historical programmes should be, particularly when they deal with religion. Mr Holland struck me as objective, a genuine searcher after meaning and truth, someone who was not looking for evidence to support his preconceptions, but evaluating the evidence he found, and then drawing conclusions.

It was perhaps because it was good history, though, that it made less than stellar television, as Christopher Howse finds in his review of it for the Daily Telegraph. Indeed, television is not the perfect medium for subtleties of thought and nuances of meaning, so the programme certainly had its dull moments.

What are we as Christians to make of the rise of Islam, seemingly from complete obscurity, in the seventh century?

One thing the programme mentioned was the spectacular nature of the birth of the Arab empire in the decades after the death of Mohammed. However, for every effect, there are causes, and the birth of the Arab empire is not so very suprising. The Arabs were not the first nomadic people to conquer huge swathes of territory very quickly: the Huns had done the same, the Turks were to do something similar, as were the Mongols of Genghis Khan and of Tamerlane. In fact the concept of great Empires being overrun by hordes from the steppes is something we should be fairly used to. And what did the Huns, the Mongols, the Turks and the Arabs all have in common? They had horses, and the ability to move fast and live off the land. Given that the Persian and Roman Empires were exhausted by war with each other in the seventh century, and given the problems sedentary peoples usually have with nomadic incursions, the Arab conquests are what you would expect.

But what is suprising is what came afterwards. Unlike the Huns, and the Goths, the Avars and the Mongols, the Arabs are still with us. They succeeded in impressing their language and culture on the region we now consider the Arab world, subsuming the indigenous cultures and languages, even though they were a tiny minority compared to the peoples they conquered. And this is where religion comes in, I think. They brought with them a new religion, and because religion is the bearer of culture, they made their lasting mark.

You see something very similar at work in the Ottoman Empire. Most of the great men of that Empire were non-Turkish, or the children of non-Turkish mothers: all the Sultans were children of formerly Christian women; the Janissaries were all formerly Christians; many of the Grand Viziers were born Greek or Albanian. The greatest architect, Sinan, was an ethnic Greek or Armenian. But the point was, as soon as they converted to Islam, they became culturally Ottoman. Today’s Turks are their descendants. The modern Turkish state has replaced (perhaps not with complete success) a religious identity with a nationalist one.

So, the fact that the Arab Empire survived as long as it did, and survives to this day as a cultural bloc, is largely because of its religion. And that is why I am not really convinced by Tom Holland’s thesis that the rise of Islam post-dated the rise of the Arab Empire. It is perfectly true that the evidence for a fully formed Islam in the early years of conquest is practically non-existent, but as one of the experts on the programme pointed out, that lack of evidence does not mean that it was not there. (It could have been there in embryo too.)

But the programme was right about one thing, which I have written about before now: 

There was a history before Islam, and despite Muslim belief in the pre-Islamic period being “The Age of Ignorance” there is surely a question here, namely, what are the sources of the Koran? Muslims believe that the source of the Koran is God, and that it is his uncreated word, but those of us outside the circle of that faith may surely ask whether the Koran, like other books, shows the influence of the time and place of its composition. I have no difficulty believing that the Koran originates in seventh century Arabia, a place that seems to be outside the mainstream of history, but what I would really like to know is what cultural influences were present in that milieu.

Tom Holland sees the Koran emerging in places closer to the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, which is persuasive, and accords with some hints in the text, but the same question remains: what was going on there at the time that led to the rise of this new religion?

  • Peter

    The net effect of the Islamic conquest was the neutralisation of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Carthage and eventually, through the Ottomans, Constantinople, as potential centres of Christianity competing with Rome.

    It is truly uncanny that history had left Rome as the sole surviving independent centre of Christianity, making that city the platform from which Christianity became truly global.

  • Lt.Fudgecake

     Although, the collapse of that empire and the fall of communism leave us with significant Orthodox populations no longer suppressed by foreign or atheist rule. It would be interesting to see how Rome’s position changes as these voices become more influential.

  • guest

    This programme was terrible, the presenter and writer is ignorant and looked at all the issues in a small closed minded view that did not let him find the right answers. Had he actually interviewed a few muslims they would have easily answered his questions. Instead he chose to ask non-muslim “scholars” for the answers which of course they did not have just as his hypotheses were all wrong. The presenter unfortunately looked at Islam in the eyes of modern christian or judaical thinking instead of Islams own unique ideology that has the answers. When he said that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking that he has got it all wrong he was right, he really did get it so very very wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/sb1282000 Simon B

    I am not a Muslim, But the “History of Islam” by Tom Holland was one of the poorest prorgram I ever seen on CH4 and was surprise how CH4 allowed such a poor edition. He consulted Jew and and christian scholars but to my surprise HE SEEKED ADVISE FROM BEDOUINS BUT NOT TO A SINGLE SCHOLAR LIVING IN JORDAN ! It’s like doing a program on history of christianity and mainly turned to Muslim scholars and coming to UK and seek advise from Gipsies on Christianity!!

  • Meena

    I too found this programme very disappointing.

    He did however, together with the female scholar, emphasise how difficult (impossible generally) it was, and is, to discover exactly what was going on in the 7th Century CE, and how the beliefs of Muslims seem to have no foundation in the ancient historical record.

    The faithful of this religion, centuries after its birth, had no doubts about their faith however. Their faith provided a solid basis of social cohesion and identity which was used effectively in order to establish and maintain a vast empire.
    The analogy with Rome (weak in some aspects, but nevertheless strong) is difficult to miss.

  • maxmarley

    Huns, Goths and others assimilated with the indigenous people they conquered. 
    Muslims on the other hand have a ring of steel around their ideology and culture to prevent assimilation. It goes on to this day.

  • JabbaPapa

    hmmmm, another difference is that the invading Germanic hordes had already been Christianised in earlier centuries, whereas the Arabs were exporting a new religion of their own.

  • Andris App

    Dear fr Alexander,

    You must have been aware if Malta Church-State past historical suffering history, taking note that Local Maltese Church acted with dignity, respect, and justice, acknowledging late Mr mintoff great achievements in national liberation & freedom from Britian and creation of a welfare state while agreeing that methods and means used were not accepted. Your orbituary caused more harm then good in Malta, as it did not say the two sides of the coin. Your humble apology heals as local Maltese church healed many wounds over the weekend by her compassionate role during state funeral. It is the medium, language, vocabulary that the Universal church you represent must change not the contents of the Gospel!!!! Do you have any compassion?

  • Lago1

    I agree.  1.5 hours and very little historical argument.  And what we did get was argument from silence.  And I`m not a Muslim either.

  • Parasum

    “What are we as Christians to make of the rise of Islam, seemingly from complete obscurity, in the seventh century?
    One thing the programme mentioned was the spectacular nature of the birth of the Arab empire in the decades after the death of Mohammed. However, for every effect, there are causes, and the birth of the Arab empire is not so very su[r]prising.”

    ## Its success between 622 and 750 makes the Patristic (& later) arguments that Christianity’s rapid propagation is a sign/proof of its Divine origin look rather dubious. If the argument is anything better than a confused mess, it has to be equally applicable to Islam. Which makes it useless at proving the uniqueness of Christianity. If Christianity had not by the seventh century been so divided by inter-Christian hatreds, Islam could never have had such an easy time of taking Egypt & Africa & the Christian East. All Christianity did was to produce something for people to divide over; it’s very difficult to recognise the teaching of Jesus in what passed for Christianity at Byzantium and Rome.

    The rise of Christianity doesn’t *require* any explanation by the supernatural at all – and it doesn’t require the Resurrection. It came along at the right time, in the right place, in the right circumstances; but the rise of Christianity, of the Roman Empire, of Islam, are all explicable without any recourse to the supernatural. Besides, a lot of Christianity spread by suppressing paganism – much as Islam spread.

    Islam does at least have the virtue of being straightforward. Christianity was just a ghastly mess by 622, & a greater mess now.

  • JabbaPapa

    You appear to be in a state of confusion — the only way that Islam has ever grown is through military aggression, and the religious oppression of competing faiths.

    Islam is currently stagnating, apart from the current global population increase, whereas Christianity, Catholicism particularly, is growing in both real and absolute terms — except in the West.

    I mean – look at this chart for sub-saharan Africa :

    http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedImages/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/affiliation-since-1900.png

    The growth of Islam, historically, has been characterised by long periods of stagnation, interspersed with strong periods of growth after Jihad and conquest.

    The growth of Christianity OTOH has always been something slow and steady.

    Islam grows through the persecution of others ; Christianity grows in spite of persecution.

    (75% of all acts of religious persecution in the world are directed against Christians)

  • ConfusedOfChi

    Congratulations to Channel 4 for presenting the programme….a brave step, on many people’s toes!! Many questions asked..many factual answers awaited….

  • maxmarley

    You have heard of the early Christians being thrown to the lions. 
    The early years of Christianity were times of persecution and martyrdom [until AD 312] and in spite of this the faith grew. Islam has flourished through warmongering and conquest.Christianity went on to flourish and develop much of the western civilisation we have to-day [Kenneth Clark Civilisation]. Islam has failed to develop and most failed states today are islamic.Unfortunately developed civilisation to-day has made many Christians apathetic and indifferent.Paradoxically persecution [say recent soviet style in Poland] brings out the best in us – the human soul requires rigorous challenge and persecution to see its need for Christ.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    The Avars did not die out at all. Their descendants live in the Caucasus to this day, in both Azerbaijan and Dagestan to name two regions.

    As for the Huns, after Attila’s death, they faded back into the Hungarian steppe. No-one knows what became of them. Probably they were the forebears of the Magyars. 

    So the entire premise of this ridiculous article is nonsense. 

  • Deesis

    The Koran shows the teachings of the heretic Nestorius. Parts of Nestorian tests which include the story of Christ’s birth are included. The Koran is not a divine book nor is Mohamet a prophet. We know that in order to be a prophet one has to be a Jew. We also know that the type of “inspiation” that is going into trance and speaking words that rhyme in Arabic and are cancel out previous verses already spoken and written down by hearers is not really prophesy at all. The key to understanding Islam is the word which means submission. It maens submission to Mohamet religiously and politically. It means forcing the moral/ social/ religious norms as dicated by Mohamet = submission to god. To oppose Islam in any way or point out its absurdity is to invite being forced to submit. Islam and Arabic culture borrowed and depended on other peoples. For technology, for culture, for money in the form of taxes and booty…slavery of non Moslems and higher taxation. Only by becoming a Moslem could one escape being abused. That is why Islam as an ideology is as dangerous as any of the other socio/political ideologies that have caused war and destruction in our Modern times. As long tolerance of the intolerable is the norm (since the end of the Cold War) in the West islamic immigartion will sow seeds of violence and the downfall of the West.

  • Meena


    It means forcing the moral/ social/ religious norms as dicated by……[fill in space]……….”

    You can put various words into the [fill in space] above. 
    If you are a Muslim/Moslem then I imagine it’s filled with Mohammed and his holy book, or the Pope if you are a Catholic – if you are a Protestant it’s more flexible, but still it’s “according to” the holy book!    

    There are many who will tell you their own particular “Absolute Truth”;  always based on the AUTHORITY of some person or people, or on something someone, or some people, once WROTE in a holy book. 
    As you would expect, this absurdity  -  based on the authority of a speaker or writer  -  gives rise to different “Absolute Truths” and the inevitable conflict between them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ummer-Farooq/524654742 Ummer Farooq

    The age of ignorance was spiritual ignorance. 

  • The Truth

    This programme was nonsense for these reasons: http://www.iera.org.uk/press_29aug2012.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sajid-Hussain/100002798194578 Sajid Hussain

    youtu.be/aAMX3ecS6Kc

    The Jinn And Tonic Show tomorrow will have Tom Holland as a guest – the producer of the Channel 4 documentary “Islam – The untold story” and author of “In the shadow of the sword.” It is possible to watch the show live on BlogTV (link on the video) and if you wish you may also call in to the show with Skype.