Crossroads to Islam: the Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State
by Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren, Prometheus Books, 2003.

Reading notes by John Perkins (i.e. text exerpts highlighted when reading the book)

Introduction: the Traditional Account and its Problems

Western scholars who accept the history of the Muslim sources have devoted considerable effort to reconstruct the progress of the conquest from the many conflicting and contradicting details reported. They divide the conquest of al Sam (Syria Palestine Trans-Jordan) into two stages. The first was to take control of the northern peninsula and the second was a thrust into the Damascus region.

Already in the 19th century Goldziher in 1889 sensed that no strong case exists for accepting the data in the Muslim sources as deriving from the period which they describe. Crone concludes that the Hijazis in general and the Meccans in particular, did not control any international trade routes, nor could they have made much of a living and trade.

The basic problem with the use of a written source is that while purporting to tell us what really happened it only tells us what the author thought had happened, or wanted to believe had happened, or wanted others to believe had happened. The most reliable sources available for studying the early history of Islam and the Arab state are material remains the results of archaeological surveys and excavations, epigraphy and coins.

It is argued in this book that:

* The Arabs took over the Eastern  provinces of the Byzantine Empire without a struggle because Byzantium had already decided not to defend them.

* the Arabs were pagan at the time of the takeover. Soon after, the elites adopted a form of Christianity.

* Muhammad is not a historical figure and his biography is a product of the age in which it was written (the second century AH)

* the Quran is a late compilation and was not canonized until the end of the 2nd or early 3rd centuries

Argumentum e selentio: contemporary sources will not tell us that something did not happen. Thus lack of reference to a notable event does constitute evidence in the support of the hypothesis that the event did not take place.

There is sufficient archaeological and epigraphic evidence in the Negev to enable a preliminary attempt at reconstruction of what happened.

Part I  - The Background

1 The Foundering of Empire (sic: founding?)

Defence was increasingly transferred to the Arab States organised as foederati (allies). There was a Byzantine view that the political system should not be burdened with the business of checking and manipulating and catering to great numbers of strangers in faraway countries. It is more profitable to let them govern themselves and to trade with them.

The provinces to Byzantium's east were rich and quite densely populated.

2 The Byzantine East on the Eve of Invasion

See maps Pages 31-32

It is sometimes said that the undermaning of the limes (border regions) was due to plague in Egypt and Constantinople.  But the forts had been abandoned by the 6th century and there were no recorded outbreaks of plague at that time. There is indirect evidence of the Byzantine de facto abandonment of al Sam in the Nassana papyri dating from 460 to 630.

The Persian occupation was a strange historical event. In 606 they moved through Mesopotamia and turned their attention southwards towards Syria, Palestine and Phoenicia capturing Jerusalem in 614. This is because the Byzantines had withdrawn. However, they never controlled these territories as provinces.

In 622-28 a new Byzantine offensive under Heraclius demonstrated how insecure the Sassanian control was. Heraclius struck through Armenia into Persia itself, never bothering to enter Palestine and Southern Syria. In one major battle near Ctesiphon in 628, Heraclius destroyed the Persian army, killed the king and entered the capital. He appointed a new king. In effect he had destroyed Sassanian military power leaving the civil administration intact. Along the eastern limes the Arab foederati continued their duties and continued to receive Byzantine subsidies.

Al Sam was not returned to its 6th century state of some degree of control from the Imperial Centre. The entire area was left in the hands of the Arab tribes. But without funding. The stopping of subsidy payments was merely the last step in a long process of disengagement.

3 The role of the church

The Orthodox Justin I played a large part in establishing Monophysitism as a local national non-Chalcedonian church of the Arab kingdoms bordering the eastern provinces. The main religious effect of the Persian interlude, 614-28, was to oust the remaining Chalcedonians including the patriarch of Jerusalem, till now a Chalcedonian enclave, and replace them with Monophysites. When Heraclius first proposed Monothelitism in 622 or 624, the Arab takeover of the eastern provinces was just beginning.

Is 680 when the former Byzantine Christians were beginning to accept the permanence of Arab rule, Byzantium convened the Sixth Ecumenical Council and reverted to a Chalcedonian position.

Our conclusion from the above is that Byzantium was well informed of events among on the Christians in the east, but did not to re-establish official links with them.  Monothelitism was the vehicle for the final open dissociation of the east from the Empire.

4 The demographic background

Most of the Peninsula is a parched desert which was never densely inhabited and whose population was not only sparse but extremely poor. There was a Sabaean colony dating from the hellenistic period at Dedan southwest of Egra (p68). The coastal South Arabian cultures did not colonise or spread into the inner Peninsula, which was inhabited by Bedouin type cultures. The people of the developed South Arabian Kingdoms were not called Arabs.

Many Arabs had settled in the Fertile Crescent long before the Roman Conquest. Population centres such as Damascus, Balbakk or Hims were Byzantine but with an Arab identity. An overview of the archaeological evidence in Jordan concludes that in the Byzantine period, the settled population was continuously increasing and the inscriptions show that most of the population was Arab. Many tribes adopted Christianity and some were persuaded to change loyalty due to larger subsidies than they had been receiving from the Persians. The archaeological evidence from the Negev suggests that Byzantium stopped paying the tribesmen employed in Avdat area in the mid 6th century.

Part 2

1 The Takeover

In the eastern Byzantine provinces, ca 630, lived a settled Greek and Arabic speaking Christian population.   Further south there was also be a more nomadic population known as the foederati. Then at the turn of the 7th century the largest group of foederati, the Gassanids  were disbanded and their kingdom annulled.

The archaeological record shows no destruction or abandonment of villages, no reduction in the settled or farmed areas, no diminishing of the population accompanied the changeover from Byzantine to Arab rule.

Throughout southern Syria and Jordan, we have a uniform picture of continued rural and urban occupation. Christians continued to dedicate new churches around 63. In Palestina too, Christians continued to build new churches, both during and immediately after the conquest period. There was no visible sign of conquest in the former provincial capital. And material evidence indicates that the transfer of power from the Byzantine Empire to the Arabs was not accompanied by any disruption of daily life or a degree of lawlessness.

We conclude the former foederati remained by in charge in their assigned territories. Had the tribal leaders had no access to large amounts of money, the foederati would have broken up into uncontrolled bands of raiders. The conclusion is that the former foederati had access to sources of funds and the only source of money was a central government.

The dominant strongman to emerge was Muwawiya whose powerbase was the Damascus area. He relied for his power not on the settled Arab populations but on the desert tribes some of whom may have come from the south.

According to our interpretation. what the towns actually paid to the Arabs was an annona militaris, that they had formerly paid to Byzantium. When the Arabs wrote the history of the takeover, and set it within the framework of a great conquest, they interpreted and described these payments as a tribute.

2 Political Events : the evidence of contemporary texts

The non-Arab sources from the time reflect a completely different light and different angle from that of the Muslim sources. The idea that Muawiya was the first to rule over the land taken by the Arabs is at odds with the traditional account. But it accords with the fact that the population did not at first conceive of the takeover as a permanent political change, certainly not in the years before Muawiya's rule.

To sum up, regarding the political events, the local written sources, down to the early 8th century, do not provide any evidence that a planned invasion of Arabs from the peninsula occurred. Nor that great dramatic battles ensued which crushed the Byzantine army and vanquished the Empire. What we do have is a great many descriptions of "barbarous" people from "the desert": Tayyaye,  Ishmaelites, Mhaggare.

Nowhere do we find any mention of Islam or Muslim or derivatives of them. There was a greater awareness that a new Empire had arisen rather than a new religion had been born. If there was any great invasion then nobody noticed.

3 The evidence of the coins

The early Arab coins are the chief source of contemporary evidence regarding the formation of the new Arab state. The first coins minted in al Sam after the Arab takeover are imitations of earlier Byzantine ones and for this reason are known as Arab-Byzantine coins. The issues with which we are concerned from the first decades of Arab rule are all copper coins.

The earliest coins ("precursors") come from Scythopolia and Gerasa. On some of these coins the Arab inscriptions were overstruck, with e.g. jayyid, tayyib and wafa or jayyiz, meaning "good" or "whole". These are assurances that the coins may be accepted as legal tender in the particular area. Many of these coins are very difficult to date although one is dated XXII,  i.e. 22.

The Persians minted nothing but silver coins starting in the 620s. However we would suggest that the date 22 may refer to the new Arab era which was a year or two after Muawiya had been acknowledged as governor of al Sam. This fits with the earliest surviving record of a date in terms of the Arab era which is on a papyrus also dated 22.

It has been suggested that these Arab coins should be dated later because only then would be earlier Byzantine coins be wearing out. However in the Sassanian areas, the coins were dated some from 31 on. They include coins from 44 with Muawiya's name on them. It is much more likely that the pre-Mohammedan Arab-Byzantine coins date from the first decade of Arab rule. We consider that the precursor and pre-Mohammedan coins were issued under Muawiya during period 22-60.

So many towns produced early Arab coins, in contrast to the Byzantine practice of establishing only a very few central mints, that the main reason for them all cannot have been simply the need for coinage. Rather it was a declaration of freedom from Byzantine rule. (See map below of mint towns).

After the Persian interlude, Byzantium did not return to al Sam in more than a token sense, but gradually established the border at Antioch.

Making dies and minting from them is a highly skilled art and it is unlikely that the necessary expertise was available in a town which had not previously minted coins, at least not since late Roman times. It can be argued that the closure of the Byzantine mint at Antioch in 610, would have released several hundred mint workers on to the job market. The earlier coins could have been minted in one place for distribution elsewhere.

Why were coins overstruck in Arabic and also in Greek? Every new ruler issued his own coins, but this did not mean that he would inevitably recall the old ones. However it was the new issues, not the older ones from the Byzantine, era still in circulation, that were overstruck. The explanation we favour is that it was political. Overstriking was a public declaration that the authorisation of the Arab rulers was now required on coins issued by the towns. To use Arabic on coins was more a way of declaring that it was now an official language.

The time distribution of coins suggests that the assumption of control by Muawiya was gradual, and that he at first controlled only the northern towns of al Sam (Baysn to Hims), not those of central Palestine.

The earliest Arab Sassanian coin is from the mint of Darabjird, and dated 20 YE (=31). The earliest coins with an Arabic legend are from Merv dated 31. During the first decade, the religious legend bism Allah appears in Arabic on Arab Sassanian coins struck at various mints over the former Sassanian realm. It provides evidence for Arab control of a political entity that is still recognisably Sassanian in appearance. No ruler's name appears on the coins until the 40s (660s).

The silence regarding the names of early commanders fits with our suggestion that until Muawiya there was nobody to mention. He is the first Arab ruler to be archaeologically and epigraphically attested.

4 The foundation of the Arab state: a suggested reconstruction

The numismatic declarations of autonomy started at Jeras (Gerasa) and Baysans and gradually moved northwards to Hims and Tartus. Muawiya spent most of his first two decades 20-40 continuing to amass support and gradually taking control of the Sassanid areas away from his base in Damascus. Muawiya relied for his power on desert tribes, and on his own family, or members of small tribes whom he had allied to his family by marriage, and from among whom the provincial governors were chosen. His situation likely resembled that of a feudal overlord than any modern notion of ruler.

In 77-79 Abd al-Malik reformed the coinage of the Arab state, abolishing all Byzantine traces of designs on the coins. This is an explicit declaration of independence which had not before been proclaimed.

Part 3

The religious background

Judging from the archaeology and epigraphy of the Hijaz in particular, the pagan cults described in the Muslim sources were not a Hijazi phenomenon. The archaeological remains and inscriptions give the impression that within the Negev cities from the 5th century on, Christianity was the only observable faith. In the northern Hijaz, the Arabs were pagan. (p177)

See also summary pages 242-245.

The rest of the book considers events and evidence in more detail but is somewhat superseded by the work of Volker Popp in identifying the basis of the use of the word Muhammad, which they regard as being unexplained.
Curiously the book does not seem to mention Muawiya's bathhouse inscription at Gadara.