The Arabic Historical Tradition & the Early Islamic Conquests: Folklore, Tribal Lore, Holy War

  • Book Title:
 The Arabic Historical Tradition
  • Book Author:
Boaz Shoshan
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Methodological premises and argument

About to describe the capture of Fiḥl in the Jordan Valley1 in 13/634–35,2 Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, arguably the most important historian in the ʿAbbāsid period,3 has a problem to share with his readers.

[We] will relate the matter of Fiḥl, though the report that relates it contains the differences of opinion that I have mentioned regarding the conquests of the army of Syria.

 In fact, among the disagreeable aspects [of this study] is the occurrence of such a difference as the one I have noted about the date of this battle, [a difference that arose] because of the nearness [in time] of some of those [battles] to others.4

Here, al-Ṭabarī alludes to difficulties he had raised earlier: while Ibn Isḥāq, the author of Sīrat rasūl Allāh, and one of his authorities, places the battle at Fiḥl in his account of the year 13, Sayf b. ʿUmar, al-Ṭabarī’s primary source for the early conquests, does so in his report about the following year.

 For al-Ṭabarī, then, the problem is one of chronology rather than content. That Sayf provides an account considerably different from Ibn Isḥāq’s passes him by unnoticed.5

With all due respect, modern historians may look at the records differently. Like early Islamic history in general, the early Arab conquests of the 630s and 640s should pose for them a considerable challenge and require a skeptical view as regards the possibility of writing their history, certainly more skeptical than al-Ṭabarī and his followers.

 There are compelling reasons for such skepticism that by now are well known, if not always accepted. The earliest historical written tradition, although claimed to rely on still earlier, both oral and written, materials, emerges after the mid-eighth century and is more than one hundred years removed from the events it contends to inscribe.

Even those scholars assuming an early emergence of a written historical tradition usually do not date it earlier than the beginning of the second hijrī century, that is, the 720s.6 Granting that it originally circulated, at least for some generations, orally,7 we are in the dark as to what happened to this tradition when transformed from fluid memorialization to fixed, written texts. An assumption that both specific reports and the overall tendency were affected in the process cannot be completely wrong.8

 Indeed, the historiography of the rise of Islam has been characterized as “mostly episodic, discontinuous,” frequently self-contradictory, “multi-layered compositions that have gone through different stages of editing and elaboration for different purposes at different times.”9 In addition, it speaks to us “through the use of persistent topoi and abstracted, stylized narratives.”10 And it certainly is fraught with a considerable amount of fiction.11

For when speaking or writing about the past, facts were not necessarily the only, not even the prime, concern of the Muslims of old. Even if one can establish some suspicious episode as factual,12 there is no guarantee that this applies to other episodes.

 One ought to consider a gap, at times presumably quite wide, between the ancient premises embedded in the historical narratives and modern concepts underlying a scholarly pursuit of history as it actually happened.

More than 30 years ago, in his reconstruction of the early conquests of Syria and Iraq, Fred Donner referred to some of the problems involved in such enterprise: doubt about the authenticity of “eyewitness accounts”13 and occasional contradictions between reports.14 Despite writing a few hundred pages on the basis of impressive research work, Donner concludes that one could reduce the great mass of Arabic writings on the conquests to only a few general facts.15 One could further argue that a methodology that regards accredited chains of trans- mitters (isnāds) as a guarantee for the historical veracity of their reports will not do.

 Trusting information that the sources agreed upon unanimously, or, alternatively, information that comes only from a single source, or information that appears logical, or the harmonizing of accounts that are at variance all seem too flexible as solutions for the problems that the sources pose. That they do not promise a yield of uncontested facts may be not only assumed philosophically but also demonstrated empirically – for example, a propos of the number of 24,000 Arabs fighting in Syrian territories.16

Although this and similar inflated figures are quoted in several sources, one is uneasy with what appears to be defying historical plausibility; for such figures supersede the size of all later Islamic armies and are above the number of fighters that the nascent community could possibly be expected to throw into a single front in the 630s and 640s. We shall return to this point.17

With regard to the very process of the conquests, there is hardly, in the voluminous writings that Arabic historical tradition has left us, a single example of a detailed battle narrative. What appears to have engaged Muslim writers more than large-scale movements of troops and confrontation between armies are duels or single combats preceding the battles,18 most likely a literary convention to be found also in descriptions of later confrontations within the Islamic polity.19

Perhaps it was grounded in distant memories of other cultures, such as the Biblical David–Goliath single combat, or else influenced by contemporary motifs.20 In any case, two pages by the seventh-century Byzantine Theophylact Simocatta can probably teach us more about late antique warfare than 200 pages by al-Ṭabarī.21

A typical description of the actual fighting that allegedly took place during the early conquests comprises a few passages, two pages at the most, and presents mainly stereotypes.22 Thus, the most we can learn about the battle at Ullays (Iraq) is that al-Muthannā b. Ḥāritha and his army fought and defeated Jābān and killed most of his troops near what came to be known as the Blood Canal.

Another version tells that the two sides fought fiercely and the Persians persevered “to the extent that it was in God’s knowledge that He would bring them to do so.” In the end, God defeated them, and He slew the Persian commander Mihrān, although, according to one version, all due respect to the Almighty notwithstanding, it rather was a young Christian Arab, or other contenders, who claimed credit for that.

And in an obvious intent of depicting this particular battle as a symbol of Muslim performance, Khālid b. al-Walīd, one of the best commanders, is said to state the following: “When I fought on the Day of Mu’tah [in the Prophet’s time], nine swords were broken in my hand, but never did I encounter a people . . .

 like those of Ullays.”23 Also at the nearby al- Kāẓima, where “[t]he infantry came forward and then advanced against the enemy until it met them and the two sides fought,” it was God’s help that was crucial.24 At al-Ubulla, 300 Muslims fought a superior Persian force of 500 and it took them to win “no longer than is necessary to slaughter a camel and divide it; God routed the Persians; they took to flight and withdrew into the city.”25

The description of the fighting at al-Anbār gives place to dialogues no less than to actual acts and, in between, we learn of the peculiar problems the Arabs faced: some of their she-camels were about to give birth but they could not halt, so they “tied up the teats of the camels with young and carried the newborn camels on the rumps of others. . . .”26

 The result of the battle at al-Muṣayyakh in the Syrian Desert is depicted almost artfully, with the pastoral metaphor quite deceptive: “The ground was filled with the slain. The Muslims could liken them [their enemies] only to prostrated sheep.”27 In Southern Iraq, the Muslims attacked the Persians fiercely, “like a lion struggling with his prey and attacking time and again.”28 And what is one to make of the report on the battle at Wāj al-Rūdh, near Hamadhān, which tells us only that the Muslims won after the two sides fought vehemently in a great battle that was not inferior to the battle at Nihāwand? That countless men were killed, “and the bloody struggle between them was no less than [other] great battles”?

 The circular reference is not of much help, and the self-praising poem allegedly recited by Nuʿaym b. Muqar- rin, the Arab commander, to celebrate the victory, appears in al-Ṭabarī’s account as more important than the three-line prosaic description, perhaps the latter serving just as a framework into which to cast the lines of poetry.29

 Obviously, some rhetorical analogies, and possibly some good poetry, are hardly the stuff of serious military history.

As Chapters 3 and 5 will show, not even famous battles, such as the Yarmūk, generated elaborate descriptions from which one can derive a fair idea about military tactics and army movements.30

If we seem to fare somewhat better with the famous battle against the Persians at al-Qādisiyya, our sources note the lack of a Persian counter version. For good reason, however: the 30,000 enemy troops that participated in the decisive round were all stabbed to death, “and none of them escaped to tell the story.”31 s as ironic but

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