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Embedding Conquest: Naturalising Muslim Rule in the Early Islamic Empire (600-1000)

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - EMBEDDING CONQUEST (Embedding Conquest: Naturalising Muslim Rule in the Early Islamic Empire (600-1000))

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-12-31

What made the early Islamic empire so successful and have we missed the story by neglecting crucial evidence? The 7th-century Arab conquests changed the socio-political configurations in the Mediterranean and Eurasia forever. Yet we do not really know how the Arabs managed to gain dominance over this vast, ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse area, which had its own, long imperial traditions, and to make this a sustainable enterprise. What built the empire, and what held it together? Scholarship to date has overwhelmingly relied on ‘literary’ sources in Arabic (e.g. chronicles, legal treatises, theological tracts), composed centuries after the conquests and shaped by court politics at their time of writing. This has created a false impression of the embedding of Muslim rule as a top-down process, directed from the centre, built on military coercion and control through administrative systems. Now, however, ‘documentary’ sources in multiple languages on papyrus, leather and paper from all over the empire (e.g. letters, contracts, fiscal accounts, petitions, decrees, work permits) are becoming increasingly available. These sources, whose impact has been limited by linguistic and disciplinary boundaries, offer a direct, contemporary view of how the empire worked on the ground, and how political and social structures were experienced, modified and appropriated by its subjects. This project uniquely incorporates all available documents reflecting Muslim rule from the first 400 years of Islam, to reconstruct the system of social relations that enabled the crucial transition from a conquest society to a political organism that survived the breakdown of central caliphal control, and remains the region’s benchmark model today. It critically advances our understanding of a world historical event, makes a radically new contribution to empire studies, and connects and synergises area studies and interdisciplinary inquiry.
The project has already resulted in multiple publications, conference papers, public lectures, blogs and a public website. The project has generated additional activities, such as outside scholars joining the project, extra scholarly meetings and team-member participation in workshops, conferences and other scholarly initiatives around the world. These have added significantly to the project’s impact and effectiveness. Two initiatives aimed at public dissemination have been developed in the form of a blog series published on the project’s website under the name ‘Eye-opener’ ( and a website dedicated to documentary sources for the study of the Islamic empire ( The team has put together a Proof of Concept proposal (submitted in September 2019) to exploit some of the results of the project commercially by developing a game. All these outputs focus on the project’s two main objectives: (1) studying the Islamic empire’s success in establishing long-lasting rule after the great Arab conquests; and doing so by (2) using documents together with literary texts. Through an interdisciplinary approach drawing on the latest advances in comparative empire studies, religious studies and social history, the project examines what social structures and interdependencies enabled the establishment of the Islamic empire and subsequently held it together. A premise of the project is that rule is not (only) achieved through top-down force, but that stakeholders need to be created to support the empire from below. Therefore, team members examine how interdependency between rulers and ruled was fostered through systems of patronage, relations of reciprocity, (group) identity and solidarity. To access these we analyse the operative language of social dependency as it appears in the region’s many extant letters. Through innovative methodologies, such as Digital Humanities, team members have started to examine the language, rhetoric and semantic structure of letters preserved in documents and quoted in literary sources to understand how social dependency was established between the many different groups and individuals in the Islamic empire and how letters functioned as instruments of power. This research is especially relevant, since understanding how the linguistically, ethnically and religiously very varied population was kept together in the Islamic empire, which continues to be a model in the region and beyond, offers lessons about governing diverse populations into our own time period.
The great Arab conquests have generated a lot research. The remarkable success of the conquests, however, has tended to overshadow the much more important historical question of how, having won control of a world empire, the Arabs managed to hold on to it. Rather than focusing on the battles and the Arabs’ military campaigns, as astonishing at these were, the Embedding Conquest project focuses on the much more drawn-out process of consolidating and entrenching those gains into an enduring system of power. The premise that establishing and maintaining rule cannot be achieved (only) through force and the top-down imposition of control has led us to examine the social ties that were cultivated consciously and developed serendipitously and that held the Islamic empire and its diverse populations together. From the negotiation and treaties that established Muslim rule during the conquests to the processes of state formation in the generations following, our project examines how power was established through co-option, co-operation and the appeal to shared interests. This is already leading to a major revision to the way in which the founding and functioning of the Islamic empire is approached. Much of our insights about the successful establishment and continued existence of the Islamic empire have been influenced by comparative empire studies. Empire studies rarely make use of the Islamic empire in their models.

One of the aims of the project is to integrate the Islamic empire into empire studies and other comparative historical approaches. By showing the dynamics of power in the establishment and running of the Islamic empire, we aim to challenge analyses essentialising Islam that dominate the public and scholarly debate. We aim to change attitudes in the scholarly domain by inviting scholars working on other regions and periods to our conferences and workshops, while publications are planned in mainstream journals that emphasise the fertility of the Islamic empire as a comparative model. In our blog series we offer examples that are accessible to the general public. The (board or computer) game that we aim to produce is also intended to disseminate our insights about the deep social ties that support hierarchical systems especially in establishing long-lasting political structures in post-conquest societies to a larger audience.

Scholars of the medieval Muslim world have so far mainly relied on literary sources that were produced several centuries after the process of Muslim state formation and under very different historical circumstances. These sources generally offer a perspective exclusively from the rulers’ courts. This has created a false and limited impression of the power dynamics in the Islamic empire. Documents in the many different languages of the Islamic empire exist in large numbers but remain largely underused. By placing documents at the centre of our analysis, the project accesses a deeper level of understanding and offers richer insights. Our studies into the linguistic and rhetorical strategies of letters between governors and governed – in both directions, along vertical and horizontal hierarchical axes –serve as examples of the insights gained from this change of perspective. By comparing letters preserved in documents with those cited in literary sources, drawing upon the techniques of Digital Humanities, we also make important contributions to the historiographical debate about the reliability of historical texts.
From Maqamat al-Hariri: Abu Zayd pleads before the Qadi of Ma'arra (1334)