Seminar on the Arab-Muslim conquests

Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital.
Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital. [Source: Wikipedia]

Within a couple generations following the death of Muḥammad, the Muslim community saw itself in control of a vast expanse of land, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian sub-continent in the east. Among its striking accomplishments, this coalition of tribal forces from the Arabian Peninsula defeated the two reigning superpowers of the era; the Arab-Muslim conquerors completely subjugated the Sāsānian Empire and they dealt a crippling blow to the Byzantine Empire, which survived, albeit in a very different form. In this course, we will examine these momentous events, which forever changed the world, as well as their background and their repercussions, which continue to be felt to this day. In order to conduct our study, we will read primary sources and conclude our class with an investigation into several historiographical issues pertaining to early Islam: the causes of the conquests, the perspective of non-Muslim peoples, apocalyptic views, and the development of the body of literature about the Arab-Muslim conquests known as the futūḥ.

Course expectation and student evaluation

This course is a seminar and demands individual participation in class dialogues. Each student will have the opportunity to lead a classroom discussion revolving around the assigned readings. Students will write two papers for this class: a mid-term paper on an assigned topic and a research paper on a topic of choice. Students will be evaluated on the basis of four factors: (1) participation (20%), (2) mid-term paper (25%), (3) seminar presentation (25%), and (4) a research paper (30%). Given the importance of discussion, students are expected to have read the assigned reading in advance of each class. Almost every reading assignment includes primary literature highlighting a specific aspect of the session’s topic. These short texts (in English translation), which we will study further in class, are aimed to give you practice reading and analysing sources from different periods, traditions, and perspectives. Recommended readings are not required, but are offered for those seeking further depth, as a starting point for research papers, and as a highly-encouraged resource for those leading the daily conversations. By the end of this course, it is hoped that students will have not only a better understanding of early Islam and the Arab-Muslim conquests, but have developed better research skills, improved their analysis of primary texts, practiced critical thinking, and gained experience collecting and presenting information clearly.

Required texts

Course outline

I. The Birth of Islam and the political course of the movement, 622–750

  1. Introduction to Islam and the Arab-Muslim conquests

  2. Required reading:
  3. The Question of succession: From ummah to caliphate

  4. Required reading:
  5. Civil wars and the emergence of empire

  6. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Prophet, 75–112.
    • Fred McGraw Donner, ‘The Formation of the Islamic state’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 106.2 (April–June 1986), 283–296.
    • Mīr-Khvānd, The Rauzat-us-safa, or, Garden of purity: Containing the histories of prophets, kings, and khalifs by Muhammad bin Khâvendshâh bin Mahmûd, commonly called Mirkhond, ed. Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, transl. from Persian by Edward Rehatsek (London: Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1891–1894), vol. 3, 177–190. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:

II. Consolidation and expansion

  1. The Riddah campaign and the consolidation of Arabia

  2. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Prophet, 50–57.
    • Fred McGraw Donner, The Early Islamic conquests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 82–90.
    • Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Shaʿban, Islamic history, A.D. 600–750 (A.H. 132): A New interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 16–27.
    • al-Balādhurī, The Origins of the Islamic state, being a translation from the Arabic accompanied with annotations, geographic and historic notes of the Kitâb futûḥ al-buldân of al-Imâm abu-l ʿAbbâs Aḥmad ibn-Jâbir al-Balâdhuri, ed. and transl. from Arabic by Philip Khuri Hitti, vol. 1 (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), 143–152. [Primary source]
  3. The Syrian front and the Battle of al-Yarmūk

  4. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Conquests, 66–97.
    • Kennedy, Prophet, 57–64.
    • John Walter Jandora, ‘The Battle of the Yarmūk: A Reconstruction’, Journal of Asian History 19 (1985), 8–21.
    • aṭ-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, transl. from Arabic by Khalid Yahya Blankinship, vol. 11 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 94–104. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:
    • Moshe Sharon, ‘The Decisive battles in the Arab conquest of Syria’, Studia Orientalia 101 (2004), 297–357.
  5. The Iraqi front and the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah

  6. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Conquests, 98–138.
    • Kennedy, Prophet, 65–69.
    • Fred McGraw Donner, The Early Islamic conquests (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 167–176.
    • Abū Yūsuf, Kitab-ul-kharaj (Islamic revenue code), ed. Abdul Hameed Siddiqui, transl. from Arabic by Abid Ahmad Ali (Lahore: Islamic Book Centre, 1979), 51–62. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:
  7. The Subjugation of Iran

  8. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Conquests, 169–199.
    • Richard Nelson Frye, The Golden age of Persia: The Arabs in the East (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 54–73.
    • Ferdowsī, Shahnameh: The Persian book of kings, transl. from Persian by Dick Davis (New York City: Viking, 2006), 842–854. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:
  9. Armenia, the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and North Africa

  10. Mid-term paper due.
    Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Conquests, 139–168, 200–224.
    • Kennedy, Prophet, 64–65.
    • Lawrence Irving Conrad, ‘The Arabs and the Colossus’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3rd s. 6.2 (July 1996), 165–187.
    • al-Balādhurī, The Origins of the Islamic state, being a translation from the Arabic accompanied with annotations, geographic and historic notes of the Kitâb futûḥ al-buldân of al-Imâm abu-l ʿAbbâs Aḥmad ibn-Jâbir al-Balâdhuri, ed. and transl. from Arabic by Philip Khuri Hitti, vol. 1 (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), 335–345. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:
    • Walter Emil Kaegi, Jr, Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 181–204.
  11. Central Asia, Sindh, Anatolia, and Spain and the limits of expansion (660s–710s)

  12. Required reading:
    • Kennedy, Conquests, 225–254.
    • Richard Nelson Frye, The Golden age of Persia: The Arabs in the East (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 74–103.
    • aṭ-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, transl. from Arabic by David Stephan Powers, vol. 24 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), .
    Recommended reading:

III. The Conquests in historical perspective

  1. The Cause of the Conquests

  2. Research paper outline due.
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Historiographical problems

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • Lawrence Irving Conrad, ‘Seven and the tasbīʿ: On the implications of numerical symbolism for the study of medieval Islamic history’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 31.1 (1988), 42–73.
    • R Stephen Humphreys, Islamic history: A framework for inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 69–103.
    • Albrecht Noth and Lawrence Irving Conrad, The Early Arabic historical tradition: A Source-critical study, transl. from German by Michael Bonner (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1994), 1–25.

IV. New encounters and lasting legacies

  1. The Conquests as seen from without

  2. Required reading:
    • Sebastian Paul Brock, ‘Syriac views of emergent Islam’, in Studies on the first century of Islamic society, ed. Gautier H A Juynboll (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 9–21.
    • Demetrios J Constantelos, ‘The Moslem conquests of the Near East as revealed in the Greek sources of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries’, Byzantion 42 (1972), 325–357.
    • Walter Emil Kaegi, ‘Initial Byzantine reactions to the Arab Conquest’, in Army, society, and religion in Byzantium (London: Variorum Reprints, 1982), 139–149.
    • Gerrit J Reinink, ‘East Syrian historiography in response to the rise of Islam: The Case of John bar Penkaye’s Ktābā d-rēš mellē’, in Redefining Christian identity: Christian cultural strategies since the rise of Islam, ed. Jan J van Ginkel, Hendrika Lena Murre-van der Berg and Theo Maarten van Lint (Leuven/Dudley, Massachusetts: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 2005), 77–89.
    • Andrew Palmer, ed., The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian chronicles (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993), 151–154. [Primary source]
  3. The End of the world in the Seventh Century

  4. Required reading:
    • Michael A Cook, ‘An Early Islamic apocalyptic chronicle’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52.1 (January 1993), 25–29.
    • Paul Julius Alexander, ‘Medieval apocalypses as historical sources’, American Historical Review 73.4 (April 1968), 997–1018.
    • Robert G Hoyland, Seeing Islam as others saw it: A Survey and evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian writings on early Islam (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997), 307–330. [Primary source]
    • Bar ʿEbhrāyā, The Chronography of Gregory Abûʾl Faraj, the son of Aaron, the Hebrew physician, commonly known as Bar Hebraeus; Being the first part of his political history of the world, transl. from Syriac by Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1976), 90–103. [Primary source]
    Recommended reading:
    • David Cook, ‘Muslim apocalyptic and jihād’, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 20 (1996), 66–104.
    • Michael A Cook, ‘Eschatology and the dating of traditions’, Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies 1 (1992), 23–47.
    • Anna Krasnowolska, ‘Rostam Farroxzād’s prophecy in Šāh-Nāme and the Zoroastrian apocalyptic texts’, Folia Orientalia 19 (1978), 173–184.
  5. The Development of the futūḥ narratives

  6. Required reading:
    • R Stephen Humphreys, ‘Qurʾanic myth and narrative structure in early Islamic historiography’, in Tradition and innovation in late antiquity, ed. Frank M Clover and R Stephen Humphreys (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 271–290.
    • Albrecht Noth, ‘Futūḥ-history and futūḥ-historiography: The Muslim conquest of Damascus’, al-Qanṭarah 10 (1989), 453–462.
    • Thomas Sizgorich, ‘“Do prophets come with a sword?” Conquest, empire, and historical narrative in the early Islamic world’, American Historical Review 112.4 (October 2007), 993–1015.
    Recommended reading:
    • Fred McGraw Donner, ‘Centralized authority and military autonomy in the early Islamic conquests’, in The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East: Papers of the First Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, ed. Averil Cameron, vol. 3 (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995), 337–360.
    • Tayeb El-Hibri, Parable and politics in early Islamic history: The Rashidun caliphs (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2010), 77–121.
    Research paper due at end of term.

Upcoming talks and lectures

Please note that not all of these events are open to the general audience; please check with the organisers to confirm.
  • 08 May 2024, 14.15—‘Category imperative: The Establishment of the Bahāʾī Department in the Israeli Ministry for Religious Affairs’’ (47th annual conference of the Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel): Open University, Raʿanannah, Israel.
  • 15 May 2024, 16.30—‘Shoghi Effendi and the development of Bahāʾī-Israeli relations’’ (Il Condominio Italian Bahāʾī forum): Rome, Italy (Zoom).
  • 06 June 2024, 18.30—‘Crisis of authority and authority during crisis: Shoghi Effendi’s succession and the State of Israel’ (Hebrew University Chair in Bahaʾi Studies Public Lecture): Hebrew University, Jerusalem (Zoom).
  • 13 August 2024, 9.30—‘The Return of Iran: Iranian nationalist rhetoric during the Iran-Iraq War’ (14th biennial conference of the Association for Iranian Studies): Mexico City, Mexico.
  • Past events ► click to expand