Did the Muslims conquer the Middle East? History says they did, from both the Western and Islamic perspectives. Much of the self-understanding of modern civilization has been built upon this premise, the resulting Crusades, and eventual colonization by European powers.
Some fear there are signs of a renewed animosity between the Western and Muslim worlds, a quasi-religious competition, even as Christianity has lost much of its ethos and Islam has lost much of its power.
But new research into a third resource questions the history. Scholars and historians know Latin and Greek. Arabic is also readily translated and studied.
But not Syriac, the neglected lingua franca of 7th century life in the Levant, and the language of its native, non-imperial peoples.
The Institute of Advanced Studies recently published one scholar’s research:
Syriac literature was produced by—and conversely sheds light on—communities living on the borders of the Near Eastern polities, considered as a religious minority in the Zoroastrian Empire of the Sasanians, as heretics in the eyes of the Byzantine Orthodox (since the “universal” councils of Ephesus in 421 and Chalcedon in 531 that they refused), and as one of the religions of the book under Islamic powers.
Syriac thus offers a crucial “internal” source for the history of the Mesopotamian region reaching as far as South Arabia and the Far East from the late antique to the medieval era.
Shortly before the rise of Arab/Islamic empire, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires were at war, taking and then losing Jerusalem and possession of Jesus’ True Cross.
The literature produced by Syriac Christian communities did not celebrate the triumph of the Byzantine empire, the author described, nor mourn the victory of the Zoroastrian Persians who briefly held the Holy City. They were rather nonplussed by regional politics, and awaited God’s ultimate redemption through one of their own anticipated champions.
So when the Arabs came:
It is striking to see that the second capture of Jerusalem in 636 by the Arabs, only a few years after its retaking by Heraclius, is hardly mentioned in the Syriac chronicles where it is a non-event.
Since the siege ended peacefully, after a negotiation between the Byzantine patriarch of Jerusalem and the caliph, and the city was not stormed by the Arab troops, the capture of the city is not mentioned in the most ancient Syriac sources.
Produced by the communities who were at the heart of the events, Syriac sources compel us to reconsider what “conquests” means.
Modern historians talk about the Sasanian and then Arab-Muslim conquests, but Syriac sources never use the word or concept. There were sieges, battles, military operations that could be catastrophic and dramatic for the local populations, but there were also negotiations and cities taken by treaty.
Contrary to Arab-Muslim sources that would subsequently create the genre of “futuh,” or “conquest” literature, in order to celebrate those who took part in the campaigns and the distribution of the booty, Syriac sources present a situation of occupation and change of rulership more than a conquest as such.
They invite us thus to reconsider the categories, and the agendas, that we have inherited from later Arab-Muslim sources.
There is also an interesting sub-discussion on how intra-Christian debate on the nature of Jesus’ crucifixion mirror some of the issues mentioned in the Quran.
I am wading into deep historical waters, and I am not the scholar to do so. New research often threatens to upend the academy, only to be counter-argued and put in its place. Perhaps the same will happen here.
But the language of local people is a useful counter-balance to official histories, written by either the winners or losers. In this case, both had a vested interest in labeling the actions a ‘conquest’.
Certainly the Muslims would go on to conquer further, only to be conquered later in turn. Such is the history of the world.
But lest it repeat itself unwarrantedly, both sides might do well to revisit their language and understanding of history.
For once again, the Syriac heritage stands in the middle. An ancient faith, outside of power. We have much to learn, and consider.