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“Do Prophets Come with a Sword?” Conquest, Empire, and Historical Narrative in the Early Islamic World

“Do Prophets Come with a Sword?” Conquest, Empire, and Historical Narrative in the Early Islamic World

By Thomas Sizgorich

The American Historical Review, Vol.112:4 (2007)

In the ninth century of the Common Era, a Christian apologist living and writing under Muslim rule in Iraq repeated a very old critique of Islam. Ammār al‐Barī wrote that Islam, like the religion of the Banū Isrāīl (roughly “the Sons of Israel”), had been spread by the sword, whereas Christianity forbade the use of the sword as a means of promulgating the faith. However much we may doubt the assertion that late ancient and early medieval Christians scrupulously abstained from the use of the sword in spreading their religion, the Christian apologist clearly meant to suggest that Islam’s history of faith‐driven conquest had made moot any claims that Muslims may have advanced concerning the status of their religion as the one true religion of God upon the Earth.

In tandem with its theological implications, this Christian author’s critique of Islam’s use of the sword also seems to have taken aim at the early Muslim community or umma’s organizing historical narratives about the origins of the Islamic community itself. For Muslims of the era, the events of the conquest period were recalled as a series of monumental episodes that located contemporary Islam and its adherents within an overarching narrative of prophecy, revelation, and salvation. Although Ammār al‐Barī was a Christian intellectual, he was intimately acquainted with the holy texts of the Muslims-he was one of a group of Christian scholars who are believed to have often met and studied with local Muslim religious scholars-and he clearly understood the place of the conquests in Muslim sacred history. Indeed, the Iraqi Christian author seems to have alluded directly to this early Muslim interpretation of the conquests when, using the Arabic term favored in Muslim histories, he wrote that Muslims of his age boasted about the gains made by their community “with the sword” during the futū (literally “openings” or “conquests”) of the lands taken by early Muslim armies.

For the apologist’s Muslim contemporaries, however, to focus on the sword as the primary symbol of the conquests of the lands of the Eastern Roman and Sāsānid Persian empires was in many ways to miss the true significance of those conquests. The significance of the futū as depicted in the texts of most of our early Muslim sources was the profound reordering of the present world that they brought about. This global reordering was in turn occasioned by the changes effected in the hearts and minds of Muammad’s followers and companions by the Prophet’s message and mission.

For these Muslims, the great imperial powers of late antiquity represented crucial landmarks within the cultural, political, and religious environment that was realigned and remade by Muammad’s revelation. Perhaps paradoxically, however, the grand‐scale changes wrought through conquest were but traces left upon the landscape of the present world by the far more profound transformation that had taken place in the hearts of those who had embraced Muammad’s message and mission. This otherwise invisible revolution of the spirit was, according to the contemporary Muslim narratives of Islam’s birth and early growth, manifested in the character and behaviors of the men who carried Islam into the territories of the Romans and Persians.

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