The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Don't blame Byzantium

Last year, I read the first third of Crossroads to Islam by the late Yehuda Nevo and his assistant / successor / editor Judith Koren. At the time Yehuda Nevo was a hero of mine and so I had bought the book sight unseen. I summed up that third's claims as "The Byzantine betrayal of Syria" - looking for responses.

Well, I got a response. Michael Collinge writes:

On Sunday, July 20, 2003 you talked about "The Byzantine betrayal of Syria,"
drawing from Crossroads to Islam. I just picked this book up and I must say
that it seems pretty lacking. The arguments are variously illogical and
tautological. It is laughable when Nevo and Koren suggest that the Byzantine
Empire deliberately attempted to "alienate the [eastern territories']
population from the emperor and the administration" in order to be absolved of
that annoying responsibility. They were just too lazy to maintain the empire
so they fostered its breakdown??

In a later email (responding to my cavil that it wasn't laziness but corruption):

I agree that there could have been incentives for the Byzantine Empire to
unload the administrative costs associated with upkeep of the Eastern
provinces on to locals, to "privatize". However, that a strategy existed to
deliberately foster disloyalty and contempt for the empire in these local
seems unlikely. To suggest that Constantinople consciously put this "strategy"
of alienation into effect over the long-term really is preposterous.

He cited for all this, "Check out this review of Crossroads:" and linked to Colin Wells, who may be the same Colin Wells who wrote on the Roman Empire.

A big theme of these critiques seems to be that Nevo and Koren have an "agenda". But if Nevo and Koren are right, then their agenda doesn't matter. It is only if they are wrong, that we then have to explain how they are wrong, and therefore why. (Read here.) So - are they right or wrong?

I have since had a chance to read the rest of Crossroads to Islam, and to do more research (some may have noticed the copious dead links to old projects in the early/mid-2003 entries). And yes, Nevo and Koren committed a wide array of errors. These are not of the sort of "error" that crops up just from agreeing to set the Qur'an and hadith aside while one does impartial historiography. Nor are they the "it makes Islam look bad" kind of "error" that one would expect if the authors hated Islam, as some claim. The book is just wrong.

Its most obvious mistake is that the Arab takeover was peaceful. At the time I wrote that synopsis, I was already suspecting the early Arabs of foul play. I already knew of the Doctrina Jacobi, Sophronius, and Pseudo-Methodius, for instance.

Back then there was one book that I needed for my primary-source research, that some very selfish person has consistently kept off the shelves of the local (i.e., Rice) library. This book is Robert G Hoyland's 1997 Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Since then, the indispensible Bible scholar Peter Kirby, who normally posts about Jesus, has saved us all the trouble and posted the important bits: External References to Islam (formerly at

As you can readily see, the contemporary sources decry Arab violence first and heresy second. One flips through it all and for decades one sees little but "devastation and plunder", "like wild beasts", armies defeated, monasteries burnt, monks killed. This was no peaceful handover.

Judith Koren does admit to not having read Hoyland 1997 in time for preparation for press (p. 106), but that is a six year gap. By her statement we should understand not that the book gave her too little time to revise, but that it gave her too little time to rewrite.

The Arab takeover may not have been Islamic at the time. They may not have had the Qur'an, and they may not have prayed to Mecca. We may or may not be able to prove the above, but can allow for doubting this much as the price of doing history. But the Conquest was a conquest, not some plot of the Byzantine court. Nevo's theory was just goofy.

The book does have uses. Leaving aside the first third, it arranges the known and datable material in a sequence that succeeds in challenging the existence of the full Qur'an as of the 640s CE (say), and for tracking through the decades the caliphs' official use of the suras and ahadith (or their predecessors). For that alone this book is valuable.

But if you are taking a history class covering Late Antiquity, then please please don't cite this "Byzantine plot" unless you have more evidence than Nevo and Koren gave here. If you cite this book in that context, the result won't be pleasant.

UPDATE 2/18/2017: curing link rot.

posted by Zimri on 21:51 | link | 0 comments

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