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WHEN HISTORY BECOMES A FABLE 3: The Riddles of Islamic Expansion

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The Riddles of Islamic Expansion

Inexorably, there is a problem far more complex for the historian’s mind than the so-called invasion: the expansion of Islam and Arab civilisation. While it is perfectly reasonable to reject the view that this religion was spread by the imposition of a foreign military force, which never existed (Editor’s note: We know today that there never was an Arab civilisation. This is another myth.) , the fact of an Arab civilisation, then as now, cannot be denied. Yet the problem is different in each of these cases and cannot be solved with the same method. It is possible to disarticulate the legend of the invasion with historical criticism; we have the elements to appreciate how the myth was formed over the centuries. In the absence of adequate documentation, anecdotal history is unable to explain the mechanism by which Arab civilisation spread. Similar problems are encountered in understanding similar movements that took place in the past, for example, the structure of the Roman Empire or the spread of Buddhism in Asia.

How could the masses living in India, Central Asia and Minor, the former Byzantine provinces, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, abandon their ancestral beliefs and adhere to a new faith? What was the principle that had changed their own national cultures to assimilate a conception of life alien to their cultural tradition? So, for example, how did monogamous societies suddenly become polygamous?

Classical history answers these difficult questions with nothing. That is to say, with the myth of Muslim legions that emerged from the depths of Arabia and invaded half the world, crushing and flooding everything in their path. The survivors of this catastrophe joined their conquerors. These stories have survived to the present day, and in the case of the Iberian Peninsula it is very simple: its inhabitants were annihilated and a minority of them took refuge in the mountains to the north. Another minority would have lived with the Saracens, in the darkness, like the primitive Christians in the catacombs. The Asturian highlanders had founded a kingdom that developed little by little at the cost of great efforts. They reconquered, repopulated and re-Christianised the territory lost by their ancestors. It was a counter-offensive that lasted seven centuries, from which modern Spain would later emerge.

This subterfuge was torn to pieces by historical studies initiated more than a century ago, but it was kept alive because there was no idea of another conception to replace it. When the Berber chronicles were read and the number of invaders was known to be very low, there was general astonishment. Two years later, Ortega y Gasset put the knife in the wound by affirming that a Reconquista that would have lasted 7 centuries could not be a reconquest. The importance of the military problem had to be reduced to the incidents of everyday life. Instead, the problem had to be focused on from a cultural point of view. According to the evolution of ideas that had preceded this so-called invasion, the Iberian Peninsula had become a place of millennial competition between the Semitic and Indo-European civilisations.

A sudden dechristianisation

However, the real problem still remained: that of Christian masses subjugated by Islam and Arab civilisation. If force would have forced the baptised to convert to Islam, why did the same causes not produce the same effects on the Jews who were also under their yoke? This fact is indisputable, the course of the centuries has made the Christian populations of the Maghreb and of most of the Islamic territories disappear. The Jewish family, which is also Semitic, and was also persecuted, endorsed, and taxed, kept its cohesion and maintained itself in this region and continues to do so until today. Was the faith of the Christians weaker than that of the Jews? In truth, this problem has not worried historians very much. Dominated by routine, they had accepted fables without trying to understand or explain them; something that Georges Marçais found difficult to swallow, according to him the Islamisation of Barbary poses a historical problem that we cannot hope to solve…. This country had been one of the lands where Christianity had increased the most. Introduced in Carthage and in the cities of the coast, it had spread inland. Tellurian said at the beginning of the second century: “We are in the majority in every city”. The African Church already had many martyrs, Saint Cyprian, Saint Augustine…And the Christian religion had not only followers in the cities; many small sanctuaries whose ruins have been found in Algeria bear witness to this. But the conversion ended during the next two or three centuries, in a total and definitive manner. How can we explain this de-Christianisation and its corollary: Islamisation?

Explosion of an urban religion

The same problem also arises for the eastern regions that had the oldest Christian tradition. How did nations like Egypt, Palestine, Syria and other provinces of Asia Minor belonging to the Byzantine Empire convert to Mohammedanism overnight? Why did he admit the religious law of the nomad? Recent studies show that Islam has always been a very urban religion, and Xavier de Planhol made a salient point: the nomad has a rebellious mentality. Sometimes according to his interests and other times according to his whims, and it cannot be presented as an example of religiosity, this is true for then and now. For this reason, Islam had crystallised in the cities and not in the desert. The former provinces of the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a significant urban life according to Emile Brehier: “It has been calculated that cities of 100,000 inhabitants were not exceptional in Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, before the Arab invasion. Alexandria had 600,000 souls, and it has been calculated that the population of Antioch during the Roman period was 500,000, but must have suffered a crisis during the time of St. John Chrysostom, for it must then have had 200,000 inhabitants, but then grew to 300,000 souls during the fourth century. According to Bréhier: “According to the episcopal list attributed to Saint Epiphany, which in fact dates from the beginning of the sixth century, of the 424 bishoprics dependent on Constantinople, 53 belonged to Europe and 371 to Asia. This last figure corresponds more or less to the number of cities affected by Mohammedanism. The patriarch of Alexandria, who was the most powerful, ruled 10 metropolises and 101 bishoprics, for which reason he was rightly called “the Pope”; and the patriarch of Antioch, who administered Syria, Arabia, Silicia and Mesopotamia, had 138 bishoprics under his jurisdiction, as a source attributed to Patriarch Anastasius (559-598) indicates.

On the other hand, outside the cities, expansion in the peripheral regions was very slow, as Georges Marçais has shown for North Africa. Although the political struggles took 150 years of hard fighting, and the spread of the Arabic language took several centuries, the Muslims never managed to displace the indigenous languages that are still spoken today, even Latin resisted. A text by Al Idrisi from the middle of the twelfth century, i.e. 400 years after the alleged invasion, states that Latin was constantly used in southern Tunisia. In Calsa, this erudite geographer informed us that the majority of people spoke the Latin-African language.

The pen is definitely mightier than the sword

In order to understand the spread of ‘Arab civilisation’, it is essential to compare this movement of ideas with similar phenomena that have existed in other eras. What is the difference between the expansion of Islam and what happened with the spread of Greek civilisation or Roman culture? For example, it was believed that the gigantic organisation of the Roman Empire was the work of the legions, which is obviously an exaggeration. Without diminishing its importance, it must be acknowledged that the struggle of opinions and the predominance of the most powerful ideas are other reasons. In the competition that existed for several millennia between the Semitic and Indo-European civilisations, the weight of the great cities and the political and social conceptions that they represented were more important than the gesture of the Roman drawing his spear. In reality, Carthage was not defeated at Zama, it was more a question of a bellicose encounter where the result remained unpredictable, a truce was opened that would give way to a very long cultural rivalry. According to Emile Félix Gauthier in Moeurs et coutumes des musulmans, the Semitic foundations of Carthaginian culture were discovered in North Africa and supported the expansion of Arab civilisation[1]. In the end, Hannibal’s epic was a flash in the pan. Because in the competition of ideas at that time, the contribution of the Semitic culture was much more modest, and this inferiority was already manifested during the Punic wars. Spain was a great witness to this fact. The Senate found enthusiastic allies in the coastal cities of the Spanish Levant, long before it sent legions to the soil of these future Roman provinces. This shows that despite the distance, Rome had become a centre of attraction of extraordinary importance. Thus, from a cultural or intellectual point of view, the legions did not impose Latin, it spread in the West because of its linguistic superiority over that spoken by the natives. And despite the legions, Latin could not establish itself in the East because of competition with the Greek language, to which it was inferior. At a time when the Greek armies had long since disappeared and remained a confused and distant memory, their language and literature were reaching their apogee, Hellenic civilisation was overflowing onto the shores of the Mediterranean.

An identical comparison could be made when one observes the spread of Arab civilisation during those years that followed the dark period of the so-called barbarian invasions. When Arab military superiority in the East was a shadow of its former self, this civilisation continued to expand in the highlands of Central Asia and off the Indian Ocean. It was the Turks, not the Arabs, who took Constantinople; and in the end, the Basilica of Hagia Sophia was converted to the cult of Mohammed, not some other Asian belief. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam spread to Indonesia without any military support and penetrated Africa under the eyes of the French, English and Portuguese administrations, and until modern times when Mohammedanism progresses in Africa and Europe. This contemporary and modern observation of this expansion makes it possible to understand this same extension among the ancients. There is no reason, or it remains unknown, why this spread of an identical idea should not have been similar to the present mechanism, during the sixteenth century as well as the seventh. Historians have lately realised that Islam did not spread only by the natural contagion of a strong idea, but also by the action of a determined class. It is well known that in this religion there are no priesthoods, no missionary priests who travel to distant countries to preach the mysteries of their faith, and no bureaucratic organisation like that maintained by Christianity in Rome. The powerful idea of Islam had been transmitted by a much faster means: trade, which served as a link between distant nations, and some studies point to the role played by the merchant classes in spreading the teachings of Muhammad. Checking the past, this fact is confirmed today by this observation in Black Africa, in places remote and isolated from the manifestations of Western culture.

Before the Protestants, Islam was based on a capitalist mentality

Goitian demonstrated the importance of merchants in the early days of Islam. The Prophet himself was a merchant. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was a cloth trader, Uthman, the third caliph was an importer of grain. From this period, we have a literature that focuses on economic subjects. The most important personality was Muhammad al Shaybani, who died in 804-805; his texts teach us that the merchant class was superior to the military. Abu Said Janabi, who died in 845, said: “I would rather earn one dirham from trade than receive ten dirhams from a warrior’s pay”. And as Goitian confirms: “In the early days it was mainly merchants who were involved in the development of the religious sciences of Islam.

This kind of case is not an exception in history, this author pointed out that this disposition had already played great roles in the expansion of other movements of ideas. “Similar situations could be found in the history of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Italian cities of the Middle Ages. Moreover, he drew parallels between the Arab authors of the early Hegira and certain Anglo-Protestant writers of the eighteenth century, who were considered the precursors of capitalism. Indeed, despite the great physical and intellectual distance between them, they coincide on the same concept: trade is an act that delights God, wealth is the reward, and the power of money facilitates the expansion of the religious ideal.

The preponderant role of movements of ideas on our history

The generation, growth, maturity and decay of civilisations depend to a large extent on the genesis, spread, peak and decline of strong ideas; in a word, their evolution in concert with the cultures that make up a civilisation. Strong ideas emerge from a creative magma and compete with each other as living structures. Some of them dominate other more fragile, inoperative, decaying or out-of-date concepts and form a syncretism that represents the culmination of this evolution and reaches its most sublime expression at that moment. Then these concepts harden and lose their original elasticity until they show subtle symptoms of progressive sclerosis and consequently reach decadence and degeneration of these strong ideas.

The material and ideological facts that structure a historical unit that we call civilisation, amply determine the direction of the evolution of events, because they are in a causal relationship with the ideas that direct the actions of men and society. This does not mean that the latter themselves produce events in a direct way. This sometimes happens from time to time, and then its action is sudden; in more normal situations the ideas act slowly but sometimes more effectively. The chance of circumstances favours to the dominant ideas, the acts which are within their reach and neutralizes the opposites. By this double action, positive and negative, ideas direct social phenomena towards a determined end, and channel the flow of its activities in an imprecise way at the beginning. In other words, events whose meaning lies in the direction imposed by the evolution of these strong ideas broaden their field of radiation in an extraordinary way; and those characterised by an opposite meaning become immobilised, their influence weakens and in a short time their impact is reduced to nothing.

If we consider Arab civilisation as a whole, we will see that its core is a religious conception of life, with its own dominant characteristics. We must then look for the genesis of the strong ideas that build the religious complex of the 7th century. It seems that the inspiration of the Prophet was largely a personal act, independent of the environment in which he found himself, resulting from his vital exuberance. But there is no doubt that the propagation of the teachings of the Koran took place in accordance with this religious crisis which existed to a greater or lesser extent in the regions where Islam crystallised, which explains its rapidity of diffusion, which remains relative from our point of view, since it depended on the distances and means of communication of the time.

We can now deduce some proposals about the expansion of Islam and the Arab civilisation in Spain:

-During the High Middle Ages, there existed in the south of Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, a climate similar to that which was manifested in the Byzantine provinces. This was the consequence of a religious complex that had begun long before.

-This atmosphere allowed the expansion of Islam and Arab civilisation in these territories. But because of the distance and other circumstances, there was bound to be a time lag between the moment when Arab civilisation crystallised in the East and in the West. This can be demonstrated historically, and from what we know about religious, cultural and social activities in the Iberian Peninsula at that time, it can be said that the structure of an Arabian culture began to manifest itself in the middle of the 9th century, i.e. two centuries later than in the East.

-The process of evolution that allowed the passage from the genesis of a strong idea to its total splendour was longer in the West than in the East.

For this reason, the present study on the supposed conquest of Spain is much more accessible than the supposed conquest in the East, if we want to identify the genesis of the idea, since the initial idea would not have been sullied by the lightning reflexes of secondary and consequent strong ideas. This idea manifests itself until it generates a particular mentality, and then evolves into a pre-Muslim opinion, forming a great parallel with other intellectual and cultural manifestations.

We are therefore dealing with a real culture whose genesis and adolescence took place during the period known as Visigothic, whose strong ideas evolved into the Arab civilisation. The same thing happened to the ancient provinces of Byzantium, enriched by the teachings of the School of Alexandria.

Islam spread in the Iberian Peninsula as it did in the East, in accordance with the same evolutionary process. There are no mutations here. Muslim syncretism was the consequence of a very long depuration of monotheistic ideas, whose origin can be clearly seen in the first Christian heresies, which were divergent at the time, but very synchronous. Mohammed had not invaded Arabia with foreign troops to convince his fellow citizens, but had provoked a civil war. The same thing was happening in Spain and elsewhere in the Byzantine world, where large-scale military aggression by very powerful states was very rare. The Arabs were unable to reproduce such ventures, so this was a revolutionary crisis.

Man, that limited being who observes his past

Human beings are endowed with senses appropriate to the scale of their particular structure, and thus, because of their physiological make-up, they tend to believe in the immutability of what surrounds them. As in his illusory observations of the stars, the sun, the earth, the universe where in fact nothing is stable. The latter is always in motion and change is the great law of Mother Nature. Fontanelles, in that exquisite language used by the French of the eighteenth century, explained to his friend the Marquise that it was a question of relational proportion. If roses, he said, whose life is so brief, had a conscience, they would have assumed that the gardener was eternal since they never saw him grow old. This lesson was never taken on board by historians, who for a very long time conceived of past events using immobilist criteria.

Of course, generations follow one another, and people in ancient times or in civilisations far removed in space and time had a similar intellect, and identical reactions, with the same idiosyncrasy as today. Yet a better knowledge of the evolution of ideas showed that this was not so. Sometimes a chasm could separate generations that were not temporally distant from each other. In the short term, the way of thinking and living of the population of a territory could change, and for this reason, there were real earthquakes in the world of concepts that had caused important buildings laboriously built over the centuries to collapse. And as a result, other structures had risen on the ruins of the previous ones.

We will have the opportunity to appreciate one of these gigantic spiritual and intellectual mutations. It must be emphasised, however, that these cataclysms were not the result of an exclusively intellectual action. Often, an earthquake of Mother Nature had preceded that of strong ideas, and these were not local seismic phenomena with limited repercussions. They were disasters with far more terrible effects, capable of destroying civilisations; an intense transformation of the landscape that had served as a natural setting for their inhabitants. We can now understand the mechanism of these phenomena and their repercussions. Our current knowledge demonstrates the importance of the links between man and the environment in which he lives.

To be continued…


[1] Along with other Carthaginian traditions, the author gave two examples: the hand of Fatima, which was used as an amulet to bring luck to small children, and the crescent moon, which was the symbol of the goddess Tanit in Syria and Carthage.

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