When we were last met together, we were discussing Michael Philip Penn's two recent and highly valuable books. In those he mentions other scholars who came before him in attempting, however incompletely, to make the Syriac encounters with Islam--by far the earliest such encounters, and the ones with the most numerous and most contemporaneous documentation--better known. One of those pioneering scholars was Robert Hoyland, author of the recent study In God's Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. Hoping for a longer review later, I post a few notes here about this important book deserving a place in every library concerned with Islamic history and the history of Muslim-Christian relations.
Hoyland begins by noting an unapologetic preference for 7th- and 8th-century texts, which are of course the earliest such records. What makes this approach innovative, but also, for a time, anathema to other scholars, is that these texts are often thought--disdainfully by some--as being largely "Christian" texts.
But this illustrates the central point he's going to make: there is no clear differentiation, in the earliest generations, between Arab Muslims and Syriac Christians; such a separation would come much later, and not be nearly so clear or so sharp as many today imagine. Other scholars have known for quite some time of the existence of these texts, but have avoided using them, leaving us as a result with virtually nothing--certainly nothing reliable--in the first generations of Islam after the Quran. To overcome this caesura, Hoyland is openly recognizing and using what he terms an "overwhelmingly" large number of texts of Christian provenance in Syriac and other non-Arab languages. For obvious reasons most Islamists before this have avoided using them. He's not just using or championing these texts over Islamic ones: he's arguing that the distinction between them is false and misleading.
Hoyland will also challenge a couple of other commonplaces in this book, including the one that sees the Arab advances in the 630s-640s as staggering and relentless in their success. Not quite so fast, he says, in more ways than one: it is better to see these advances over the longer period of 630-740 and to note during that period that there were some setbacks as the Arabs had to learn and adjust to a world so new to them in many ways.
As they encountered that world, Hoyland documents just how much it was not in fact totally overturned or remade by the Arabs. Neither did they bring in a dramatically new civilization from Western Arabia so much as remake existing ones, drawing on Christian and other elements to cobble together what, thanks to Hoyland, Penn, and contemporary scholars, we now recognize as a real bricolage.