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The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In Hardcover – September 11, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In forthrightly popular style, Kennedy fascinatingly chronicles the expansion of Islam from the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 to the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 (the latter the subject of Kennedy's When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, 2005). Relating the story, however, requires care since most sources date, as Kennedy cautions, from 150 to 250 years after the conquests they purport to describe. Kennedy's warnings engage interest as he provides the contexts of late antiquity, which lent advantage to the new religion sweeping out of Arabia. Crucially, Near East populations had been devastated by plague and by a war between Islam's political enemies: the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Persia. Kennedy's attention to these factors deepens his interpretations of the Islamic chronicles, which he describes as frustratingly vague on details of battles but strangely attentive to the division of booty. Explaining the élan that propelled Islam so far, so fast, and so permanently, Kennedy vividly introduces the formative establishment of Islam. Taylor, Gilbert


Saudi Aramco World
“A lively tour d’horizon of the Muslim world circa 750…Each section’s tight geographical focus and ample bibliography make this a helpful guide.”

Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2008
“Comprehensive and scholarly…[Kennedy] is a real historian, doing what a historian ought to do…Kennedy has a good eye for a colorful story.”

Military History Quarterly, Fall 2008
“Kennedy’s account is a thoughtful reminder of how even the most epochal world-changing events can turn on the unanticipated intersection of a handful of diverse contingencies.”

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press Ed edition (September 11, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306815850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306815850
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,052,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Mark O'Neill on September 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I read a pre-release copy of this book prior to a trip through some of the Gulf states. My knowledge of the spread of Islam had been limited to a short section of my secondary school history course, where it was mixed up with the fall of the Byzantine empire. It is easy to imagine that countries like Syria were always Islamic, and to forget about the swift process which converted them (from Christianity, in the case of Syria).

I found this book to be extremely readable. The fluency of the writing matched the content, the amazing swiftness of the Muslim conquests.

The author cites his sources often. I liked the fact that it felt like reading the original sources. I never felt it was just one author's opinion. The book is a nice mix of high-level accounts of battles and strategy, plus an insight into the mindset of the original Muslim soldiers, who were agile and lightly armoured, and not afraid to withdraw to fight another day. One thing which it doesn't do is go into great detail on Mohammed himself, but plenty of other books do that already.

Highly recommended.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Merkelz on February 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"The Great Arab Conquests" is not only informative and enlightening, it's also a fascinating, fast-paced, and wholly understandable read.

I'll highlight just a few aspects of the book which I considered its high points:

Writing style. The author, Hugh Kennedy, writes with a style that is easy to follow and quite often fun to read. Many history books that I have read begin with a "Preface" or an "Introduction" where the author directly addresses you, the reader. But typically, once Chapter 1 begins, the author steps far, far away from you, the reader, to dictate events from some high "historical writing" platform. Kennedy stays with you throughout the entire book, offering insightful and sometimes even humorous commentary. It reminded me less of "historical writing", and more of some of those great, engaging history class professors I had in college. More authors of history should write like this.

Organization. Kennedy's smooth and straightforward structure makes it a breeze to comprehend the vast and diverse Arab conquests. The conquests are divided up into separate chapters for each geographical region conquered (e.g. "Conquest of Iran", "Conquest of Egypt", etc.). Each chapter is roughly 30 pages in length which always felt like the ideal amount of material that I could digest in one sitting. Some history books have colossal 60-page chapters, which have always felt exhausting to me. Other books have new topic headings every few pages, which I have always found distracting. Kennedy seems to have found an ideal middle ground, and it works beautifully.

Historical sources. The original contemporary Arab sources from the time of the Arab conquests are sketchy, and often nearly fictitious.
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53 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on November 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After the death of the Mohammed in 632 and up to the Battle of Poitiers in 732, Arab Muslim armies conquered a swath of land that extended from Spain and Portugal in the West to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East. Our traditional understanding of these events is that a group Muslim fanatics were hell-bent (pardon the expression) on proselytizing others to their faith. Hugh Kennedy, professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, tells us in this excellent and well-written book that there were more mundane reasons for this sudden expansion of the realm: namely, the quest for the spoils of war. Religious conversion was not yet a factor; that would come two to three hundred years later.

This story is told in chronological as well as geographical order, moving outward from Mecca and Medina. Kennedy reminds us that many of his sources are unreliable and unclear since they were written by the victors. But he has done a masterful job putting it together, making use also of the records of the conquered. His knowledge of Arabic is evident throughout this book.

How did a group of disorganized Bedouins with no military weapons or martial tradition create such a large empire? In the beginning, Kennedy tells us, it was due mainly to the weakness and decline of the immediate surrounding empires. Byzantium, which controlled Syria and Palestine, and Sassanid Persia, which controlled what is now Iraq and Iran, had exhausted themselves fighting each other. When the Arab armies arrived they were met with little resistance.

Their mode of conquest was simple and time-honored. First they defeated the army, then they beseiged the population centers giving them a choice of paying tribute and allegiance or facing death.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Eric Du Perron on June 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was searching for a good, synthetic but serious book about the muslim conquest for a long time. For me as a french, it was a more difficult task to find it in my native language since many books about the subject in french are too old or too summarized.
The great arab conquest is a solid, well documented book and the author gave us an almost complete view, altough not exhaustive, about the conquest.
It was important for me to find an author who could work with arabic sources, even if the account from muslims historians must be studied carefully. Hugh Kennedy has aknowledged, with humillity, that he cannot give a full light about all the events and due to a lack of sources many of them will remained uncertain.
The book give us also a good background about the situation in arabia, the neighbouring empires and the doctrinal divisions especially in the byzantines provinces. It is necessary introduction for understanding the conquests.
The chapters are divided by geographical areas of conquest which is not very imaginative but it has the advantage to be simple and Hugh Kennedy is hopefully a good narrator so the book is not difficult to assimilate.
We can also notice that the author refers to the "arab conquests" and not "muslim conquests" as usual (in my case in france)and i found his view on the subject very interesting. Arabs were the bulk of the army with a strong arab spirit, the tribal ties "'açabiyya" - including internal divisions between the tribes, the idea of being a superior cast, remained vivid even with their fellow muslims from other ethnies.
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