Debunking Myths On Arab Invasion Of Roman Levant

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After our post on the surrender of Jerusalem many friends wrote to us to say that «Christianity prospered under Islamic caliphs» and «Islam provided shelter for these Christians against the tyranny of the Empire». Actually, it was not the case, we see it necessary to write this very short post for a subject that has become an archetype of bias and lies about the Roman Empire. In this short post, we will principally depend on primary sources. Here we need to point out to an important fact: no Arabic primary sources survived of that time. Simply, Arabic was not much written (except very rare documents in Roman Syria where Arabic was «invented» as a language). Thus no «Arabic sources» could be written contemporaneously with the Invasion. Sources are mostly in Greek and Syriac.

MYTH 1: LOCAL PEOPLE SIDED WITH THE INVASION.

Actually no. First it is impossible to generalise on millions of people: as in every war many people had conflicting interests. Second: the Levant was just out of the bloodiest war between Romans and Persians, thus people were «tired». And this population certainly thought that the Arab invasion is a phenomenon similar to the Persian one: that it will come to an end. The common denominator between all contemporaneous writers is that they saw an apocalyptic omen in the Invasion and considered it as a punishment to the Empire: and as we know describing some entity as a punishment is no flattery at all.

Sophronius and others did assure that «it was a punishment because of our sins» and laments the killings and atrocities committed by the invaders. One of the earliest sources on Islam, John bar Penkaye (an eastern Syriac monk and writer), also says that the Empire fell in heresy, thus the invasion as a punishment. We find something very interesting by Jon bar Penkaye: he calls the Muslims «Mhagray» «Migrants.» But he does not say that they had a new religion, and never makes references to the Coran: invading Arabs were «not yet» in the phase of codifying a religion. Thus all contemporaneous writers consider them as some Christian heresy or some close monotheist faction.

Thus many locals remained where they are, already exhausted by the long war of 602-628, hoping that the Empire will come back. Others migrated to the the lands still under the Empire. For example popes Theodore I (642-649), John V (685-686), Sergius I (687-701), Sisinius (708), Constantine (708-715), and Gregory III (731-741) were all from the Levant. This frequency is not out of coincidence. Also Emperor Leo III, founder of the Isaurian house, was from Germaniceia in northern Syria. Later, Emperor Nicephorus I the Logothete came from a great Christian Arab clan presided by Jabala (Gabalas), and whose ancestors refused to stay and took refuge in Cappadocia. The examples of these Arabo-Arabic clans fleeing their homeland to the Empire is not a rarity. Later, Arabic chroniclers count many examples who «left Syria to follow Heraclius beyond the Taurus Mountains». Many others chose to remain: wars have always been the same, some choose to remain, others to leave, and neither choice is right or wrong.

MYTH 2: THE INVASION PROVIDED SHELTER FOR DISSIDENT THEOLOGIANS

No. It did not. For centuries after the Invasion Melkite (that is, Rhomioi) patriarchs did not dare have any communication with Constantinople: in some times they were even banned from mentioning the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople in their diptychs. But theological movement continued to be shaped by the Universal Church. Thus Theodore Abu Qurrah and John Damascene became whole-Church-known theologians. But their writings were adopted by Oecumenical councils and Church fathers everywhere. Thus it was the «normal» ecclesiastical debates that continued. Even then, it is clear from the writings of John Damascene and Theodore Abu Qurrah that they considered themselves citizens of the Empire. John Damascene is the father of criticism of Islam, and we can say that he was not at all complicit, nor happy with it.

For non-Chalcedonian Churches, of what we know, the first chroniclers of the Invasion, Syriacs, spoke about killing monks and villagers and destruction near Gaza, and later in Mardin. And the martyrology of the Church speaks about 40000 martyrs of the conquest of Damascus alone. Their theologians were already «dissident» and were not banned from the Empire. And they continued the same way. This time as dhimmis who had to pay the jizya.

MYTH 3: THE INVASION «MADE IT BETTER» FOR LOCALS.

No. The myth says that «locals were fed up with the Empire’s tyranny». And this is wrong. Locals were like all other citizens of the Empire. As we already said, they were represented in the highest circles of the Politeia/Respublica (the Empire) and were full citizens, not «colonised» nor anything similar (Clearly, projecting the 20th-Century colonialism and «Enlightenment» erroneous ideas about «decadence of the Empire» on the poor citizens of the Seventh Century AD is not a good idea). One cannot but remember that the Severans, Philip the Arab, and Theodora hailed from the Levant, and that innumerable senators, army leaders, state dignitaries, patriarchs and bishops and archbishops, abbesses and historians and authors came from that part of the Empire, and its dominant religion was born here.

After the Invasion, the Jizya was even higher than the Imperial taxes: the difference is that with Imperial taxes local citizens could become emperor and strategos and army leader and prefect and governor. After the Invasion they became second-class inhabitants who theoretically could not have a say in things political even if they paid heavy taxes.

At the same time the invaders did need locals: invaders didn’t know how to cultivate land. They had not whatsoever clue about art, and didn’t know how to administer in a territorial way, and knew nothing about industry and knowledge industry. Thus the Muslim culture was born out of these local non-Muslims before anything else, Christians of all factions and Jews. Plus the jizya tax was very valuable for the state treasury and constituted its most important source of money. Thus this population was a necessity for the nascent state and later for the nascent religion.

THE INVENTION OF THE FRIENDLY INVASION

A famous Lebanese historian, Asad Rustum, himself of a Rhomioi family, did show, in his study of the Empire and of the Church of Antioch, by historical proof that what was written in Arabic sources about locals siding with the invaders was the invention of the Ninth Century, when the Roman Empire was striking back and when caliphs and Saracens lords needed their Christians subjects. Rustum shows that all early contemporaneous sources, in Greek and Syriac, of the Invasion show it in a negative way.

We do not deny that some locals sided with the Invasion and that after all it could have had some minor advantages (like every invasion in history, there are always locals for some reason or another to side with the invader!) But this is still the exception.

Πηγή

Βλέπε κι ἐδῶ, γιὰ τὸ κατὰ πόσο ὁ κόπτης (μὴ Χαλκηδόνιος) Ἰωάννης ἐπίσκοπος Νικίου συμφωνεῖ ἢ ὄχι μὲ τὰ παραπάνω.

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