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James Howard-Johnston

A. Cameron & L.I. Conrad (eds), The Byzantine and Early


Islamic Near East, I. Problems in the Literary Source Material,
1992
In: Topoi, volume 5/2, 1995. pp. 675-685.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :


Howard-Johnston James. A. Cameron & L.I. Conrad (eds), The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, I. Problems in the
Literary Source Material, 1992. In: Topoi, volume 5/2, 1995. pp. 675-685.
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/topoi_1161-9473_1995_num_5_2_1616

Compte rendu
Averil CAMERON and Lawrence I. CONRAD, eds., The Byzantine and Early
Islamic Near East. I, Problems in the Literary Source Material, Studies in Late
Antiquity and Early Islam. I, Princeton (1992), xiv + 428 pages.
A project which was conceived in 1986 and came into being with a
workshop held in autumn 1989 now makes a first durable contribution to
scholarship. The proceedings of that workshop are published in what is intended
to be the first of a series of publications devoted to the transitional age at the end
of antiquity and focused geographically on the Near East. The general objective
of the project is to promote communication between specialists currently at work
in traditionally separate fields as well as between those dealing with different
aspects of the same field, and thereby to encourage a synthesis of methods and
ideas or at any rate a fruitful interaction between them. So far four workshops
have been held, each attended by some fifty scholars and graduate students with
very diverse interests and expertise. Discussions, which were always lively, have
proved remarkably successful both in conveying information across disciplinary
divides and in opening up fresh approaches to issues, familiar and unfamiliar.
The proceedings of the second and third workshops, dealing with Land Use
and Settlement Patterns and States, Resources and Armies will be
published in the near future.
It is fitting that the first volume to be published deals with basic questions
concerning the written source material. The principal issues are raised in the
course of the editorial introduction, which both summarises the thrusts of the
eight published papers and places them in a wider historiographical and literary
context. II may be a truism to say that no written text should be used for
historical purposes until it has been properly appraised, but it is one well worth
hammering home. First of all, questions of authenticity must be answered
satisfactorily. Then each text must be understood for what it is, the product of a
particular milieu, constrained to a greater or lesser extent by the requirements of
genre, reflecting to a greater or lesser degree the interests and quirks of an author
or authors, serving to a greater or lesser degree a cause or causes. Above all its
own internal structure must be delineated, its linguistic and intellectual level
gauged, and the effects of literary artifice identified and appreciated. All of these
points are made quite rightly by the editors, who are also concerned to
concentrate attention on the interaction between oral and written modes of
communication and to ensure that the full range of extant texts, however far
removed in form and substance some may be from conventional histories and
chronicles, be treated as the raw materials of history.

Topoi 5 (1995)
p. 675-685

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J. HOWARD- JOHNSTON

The papers deal with two distinct subjects. Five and part of a sixth deal
with literary production in Christian societies, extending from the mid sixth
century to the beginning of the eighth. Two and the major part of a third
confront the central issue which fertilises or bedevils early Islamic studies in the
late twentieth century, that of authenticity how much faith, if any, should be
placed in the voluminous written materials dealing with the life of the Prophet,
the conquest by the umma which he created of the whole Near East in so short a
time, and the complex, turbulent history of the Umayyad Caliphate ? A lone
contributor adheres to what is termed a positivist approach and argues for the
authenticity of one important dossier of documentary material. She encounters
formidable opponents of the sceptical tendency, who seem to have won the
editorial team over to their side since the arguments of the lone positivist are
characterised as precarious (p. 16).
Michael Whitby ( Greek Historical Writing after Procopius : Variety and
Vitality ) presents a magisterial survey of historical writing in Greek, covering
the works of high-style classicing history written by Procopius' three successors
(Agathias, Menander Protector and Theophylact Simocatta), chronicles (chiefly
Malalas' and the Chronicon Paschale) and the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius
(with a side reference to that of John of Ephesus, written in Constantinople but
in Syriac). He then turns to the following phase of historiographical depression,
extending from the 630s to the late eighth century, and suggests that the reasons
for it are to be found in a diminishing inflow of ambitious provincials with
intellectual pretensions out to make their mark in the capital, a contracting radius
of collective historical memory, a distate for recording failures rather than
successes abroad, and a shift into other, non-historical modes of discourse
(theological disputation and apocalyptic futurology). He concludes with a
summary of what can be gleaned from East Roman sources about the Arabs
before the coming of Islam.
Averil Cameron ( New Themes and Styles in Greek Literature : SeventhEighth Centuries ) then broadens the field of inquiry to include a wide range of
texts composed without a primary historical purpose polemics, homilies,
patriographic literature, quaestiones, disputations, florilegio, and miracula. She
draws attention to an increasing element of orality and to the large scale of
cross-cultural communication forced on Christendom at a time of disaster, when
large numbers of refugees were flowing westward. She concurs with Whitby's
view that there was a dramatic contraction of historiography in seventh-century
Byzantium and a no less dramatic fall in standards which allowed legendary
figures increasingly to populate the past. Many of the same themes are taken up
by John Haldon ( The Works of Anastasius of Sinai : A Key Source for the
History of Seventh-Century East Mediterranean Society and Belief ), who adds
that the decline of the city, the basic cultural as well as social, economic and
administrative unit of the late Roman World, was responsible for much of the

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depression of literary activity evident in the seventh and eighth centuries. His
main concern, though, is with a particular text, the Quaestiones of Anastasius of
Sinai, for which he defines a context (in terms of the author's career which just
reached the beginning of the eighth century, the development of the genre, the
compromises forced on Christian communities in the Caliphate, the transition
from oral to written form, and the evolving thought-world of the author's
milieu).
It has long been recognised that the unprecedented losses suffered by the
Roman state in the middle years of the seventh century induced a profound
transformation of its institutions. What else was to be expected when an empire
accustomed to bestriding the Near East was reduced in half a generation to a
modest power struggling to maintain its independence on the edge of the
Caliphate ? The three contributors who deal with Byzantine literary culture are
agreed that this plunging of political fortune with all its structural consequences
also had a historiographical analogue. The change was indeed a drastic one, as
they demonstrate. It can be illustrated most graphically by reference to the reign
of Constans II (641-668). When, over a century later (probably in the 780s), a
first attempt was made to bridge the gap between the early years of the seventh
century and his own time, by the future patriarch Nicephorus, writing a short,
consciously classicising history, he had no information about Constans II to
hand and simply leapt over what was probably the most critical period in the
history of Byzantium, the period when a new defensive system was devised and
the whole social order was put on a war footing. His younger contemporary, the
more scholarly Theophanes, who amassed a considerable library at the
monastery which he had founded, fared little better when, a quarter of a century
later, he confronted the reign of Constans II. He too could find no Byzantine
source dealing with secular affairs, and had to make do with the scanty materials
pertaining to Byzantium supplied by an eastern chronicle.
It would, however, be surprising if the Syriac- speaking former provincials
of the East Roman Empire had suffered a lesser cultural shock than those of Asia
Minor who had not been subjected to Muslim rule. The scale of the shock is
registered by GJ. Reinink ( Ps.-Methodius : A Concept of History in Response
to the Rise of Islam ) and Han J.W. Drijvers ( The Gospel of the Twelve
Apostles : A Syriac Apocalypse from the Early Islamic Period ) who examine a
small group of apocalyptic texts emanating from the occupied lands around the
year 700. Both conduct delicate dissections of the texts in question, that of
Reinink yielding the more interesting results since the ps. -Methodius
Apocalypse which he studies is the most innovative and influential of the texts.
The time and place of its composition are established relatively easily namely
Singara on the margin of the desert and the sown, at the junction of the western
and eastern segments of the Fertile Crescent, and 690 or 691, when Abd alMalik's successes in the second great round of civil war in the Caliphate had

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extinguished lingering Christian hopes of recovery. Hope was now transferred to


the apocalyptic plane. Ps.-Methodius conjures up a Christian hero, a composite
figure to which memories of Alexander, Constantine and, above all, Jovian
contribute. He will destroy Muslim rule, now identified with the time of troubles
preceding the End, will re-unite all Christians and will then hand over his crown
to Christ at Golgotha. Reinink argues persuasively that the author's reaction to
the evident signs that Muslim rule would be permanent (above all the building of
the Dome of the Rock in 691) was to abandon the customary sectarian stance of
Christian confessional groups and to urge instead a general, united resistance to
a menacing, alien form of monotheism.
In the first part of a massive historiographical analysis of one episode in the
Arab conquest of the Near East ( The Conquest of Arwd : A Source-Critical
Study in the Historiography of the Early Medieval Near East ), Lawrence I.
Conrad demonstrates that there was a contraction of historical interest in the
Syriac world no less marked than that documented for Byzantium. For a single,
mid eighth-century historian, identified as Theophilus of Edessa, supplied, via
various intermediaries, virtually all the narrative material on the seventh century
and the first half of the eighth which appears in the two best-known Syriac
chronicles, both composed in the thirteenth century (that of Michael the Syrian
and an anonymous chronicle ending in 1234). Theophilus' work, now lost, is
also shown to have been the eastern source used by Theophanes to supplement
his Byzantine material for the period (it had reached him in the form of a Greek
translation) and to have made its way into Arabic in an abridged form in the
tenth-century chronicle of Agapius.
There could be no greater contrast between this dearth of Christian
historical narratives and the extraordinary abundance of material in Arabic
dealing with the seventh century. But what value should be attributed to the
latter ? If allowance is made for literary artifice, vested interest, fertile
imagination, oral transmission and transition from oral to written form, how
much trustworthy information has been left and how is it to be distinguished
from that which has mutated ? These are the dominant concerns of the last three
papers in the volume. In the second part of his paper, Conrad confronts Arab
accounts of the conquest of Arwd, a minute island off the Syrian coast, which
capitulated around 650, with that of the various derivatives of Theophilus of
Edessa, which he is inclined to trust. The fullest Arab version, that of Ibn A'tham
al-Kufi (written in the mid ninth century), is then shown to be a sham, a fanciful
concoction of familiar narrative motifs, topoi and other schematic features
(p. 363). A second stage of narrative elaboration, which led to major distortion
(confusion of Arwd and Rhodes, displacement of the episode to the 670s) is
then identified in the account of al-Waqidi which was recycled later by alTabari.

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The lesson to be drawn from Conrad's paper is that caution, the utmost
caution, must be shown in handling Arab accounts of the earliest phases of
Muslim history. It is rammed home yet more forcefully by Stefan Leder ( The
Literary Use of the Khabar : A Basic Form of Historical Writing ). He defines
khabar (p. 279) as a self-contained narrative unit which depicts an incident or
a limited sequence of occurences or conveys sayings . He views the khabar as a
basic component of early Islamic historical writing, but one which is detachable
from a specific context, ubiquitous and malleable. Originating partly in tribal
story-telling (as qissa) it infiltrates historical narrative, carrying in topoi, pithy
sayings, striking illustrations of character ; then feeding off the interest of the
story teller/writer and listener/reader, it grows in a process of elaboration which
introduces a great deal of fiction ; before long, these khabar growths break down
the structures of their host narratives and destroy them as useful historical
sources.
The voice of Wadd al-Qdi ( Early Islamic State Letters : The Question
of Authenticity ) seems to be sounding in a wilderness, arguing that a dossier of
mainly official correspondence dating from the late Umayyad period can be
reconstituted from texts reproduced in later, often much later, sources. She
deploys several mutually reinforcing arguments in favour of the authenticity of
the letters in question : she indicates a likely line of early transmission in the
caliphal secretariat, identifies the large, only partially preserved anthology of Ibn
Tayfur (d.893) as the principal repository of the letters and the main source from
which they were quarried by later authors, argues from internal evidence against
a theory of wholesale fabrication, and demonstrates that changes introduced by
copyists were modest and almost entirely stylistic. Although her thesis has
considerable tensile strength and convinces this reviewer, all she can do is to
make one fairly substantial addition to the category of the demonstrably
authentic. The category may be growing, but it constitutes only a very small
proportion of the total volume of early Islamic historical material.
The first workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam was an informative
and exciting experience for participants. Cumulatively the eight papers which
were delivered then and are now published make a substantial contribution to
knowledge. The wide-ranging discussion which they provoked did much to
broaden and deepen understanding of the Near East at a crucial phase of its
history. The task of reviewing is made all the more pleasurable by memories of
the occasion and of many pertinent oral contributions, only some of which have
been caught and fixed in writing by the editors or by individual authors in the
course of revising their papers. No respectable library can afford to miss this
book, and such is its modest price that individual scholars can buy their own
copies without strain.
Three sets of reflections which occurred to me in the course of the
workshop seem worth fleshing out now by way of general comment on the

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historiographical issues at the centre of its discussions. The first concerns


historical writing in Byzantium over the century or so which followed the first,
shocking Arab victories in Palestine and Syria. There is a paradox in the
contention that there was a rapid shrinkage in historical activity at a time when
historical understanding of the neighbouring world was essential to the struggle
for survival. Indeed it can be argued, from Byzantium's remarkable military and
political performance between the 630s and the 750s, that no developed society
had hitherto shown so sure and penetrative a grasp of past and present
circumstance, that never before had the whole governing elite of a state been so
imbued with historical understanding as that of Byzantium at that time. For
knowledge was as vital as effective military organisation in the struggle to
maintain an independent existence on the margins of the Caliphate. Hence the
question posed by all three Byzantinist contributors as to why there was so great
a dearth of historical writing takes on added significance. The answer must
surely be sought in a general change of intellectual atmosphere at a time when
the war effort was the dominating concern of a governing apparatus which had
always incorporated within it both writers, including historians, and their
patrons. There was no question of a general decline in the level of intellectual
activity theological debate first between Monotheletes and Chalcedonians,
then between Iconoclasts and Iconophiles, was conducted on a dauntingly high
conceptual plane, and the sudden surge of scientific and mathematical activity in
the first half of the ninth century began from a high, though non- visible base. It
is therefore wrong to extrapolate from the ignorance and superstition displayed
by the author of the late eighth-century Parastaseis (on which see most recently
I. Sevenko, The Search for the Past in Byzantium around the Year 800 ,
Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 46 [1992], pp. 289-93). Rather he should be assigned
to that never negligible category of fairly well-educated cranks, working in the
intermediate or upper reaches of a bureaucracy.
But if the governing and intellectual elite of Byzantium was compelled to
remain historically alert, if it continued to operate at a high cerebral level, why
has it left so exiguous a historical deposit in writing ? Whitby, Cameron and
Haldon are surely right first to point to a contraction in its size as a crucial factor
(itself a consequence of the massive loss of territory to the Arabs and of
widespread urban decline within the rump of empire under imperial rule) and
second to a re-orientation of its interests. Essential practical concerns dominated
the lives of officials. We may envisage them gathering and processing
information about neighbouring peoples, planning, organising logistics etc.
Much documentation of a historical character (notably position-papers) would
have been produced by the bureaucracy, just as much vital paperwork betraying
a fine grasp of theological niceties was generated in the vital intellectual struggle
for doctrinal purity. It is then simply fortuitous that the former has vanished
(with the loss of Byzantine state archives) while a fair amount of the latter has
survived in ecclesiastical and monastic libraries.

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Such a view is touched on by Haldon (pp. 126-28) only to be rejected, as


well it might be, were it a conjecture unsupported by tangible evidence.
Evidence does, however, exist. A handful of texts which must be classified as
historical have survived. Some were officially sponsored such as the Liber
Pontificalis (ed. L. Duchesne, 2 vols, Paris [1886-92]), production of which was
resumed in the seventh century when Rome was most exposed to Byzantine
influence, and book II of the Miracula of St. Demetrius (ed. P. Lemerle, Paris
[1979]), dealing with seventh-century events more in the manner of a local
chronicle than a hagiographie text. Others were unofficial in character. Dissident
circles composed and circulated a dossier of materials connected with the trials
of Pope Martin and Maximus Confessor (on which see most recently J.F.
Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, Cambridge [1990], pp. 306-12).
Some individuals did make the time to write history in their leisure hours : a
great deal of material from three such works lies embedded in the texts of
Nicephorus (ed. C. Mango, Washington, D.C. [1990]) and Theophanes (ed. C.
de Boor, Leipzig [1883]). The first of these lost works was written by a
continuator of John of Antioch in the 640s and chronicled inter alia the first
explosive phase of Arab expansion. The second two covered successively the
period from 668 to 769 and paid special attention to Byzantine-Bulgar relations.
To these should be added certain bio-degradable elements polemical
pamphlets, either encomiastic or psogic in character, which had a short lifespan
but have left many traces in Byzantine historical writings. Two, dating from the
beginning of the eighth century, have left a clear imprint on extant texts, an
account of Justinian II's dealings with Cherson in the Crimea (unfavourable
Theophanes, pp. 372-74 & 377-81 and Nicephorus, cc. 42 & 45) and a
narrative of the Caucasian adventures of the young officer who later became the
Emperor Leo III (favourable Theophanes, pp. 391-95).
It may therefore be hazarded, in opposition to the consensus of the
Byzantinist contributors, that historical interest rose to a new height in seventhand eighth-century Byzantium, precisely because it was an era of disaster. For it
was absolutely essential to try to explain what had happened and what might still
happen, in order to cope with present circumstance and to survive. Political
failure or cultural decline should not be undervalued as a force motivating
historians to write, as Whitby (pp. 71-73) and Cameron (p. 84) appear to do.
The non-Islamicist may perhaps use his vantage point outside the subject to
offer, in the second place, some general comments on the historiographical
debate which consumes so much of the energies of Islamicists at this time.
The rise of historical writing in Islam is extraordinarily impressive. Within
three generations or so of the Prophet's death, a new type of historiography
evolved which was quite independent of that developed in the Graeco-Roman
world and, in several respects, markedly its superior. Narratives of tribal
exploits, genealogies, poetry, both celebratory and polemical, provided a pre-

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Islamic base upon which members of Muhammad's umma, surely no less


tenaciously memoried than their fellow-Arabs then and since, built over the
following generations. It was and this surely should be self-evident in
origin an earnest saving after the truth. From the early eighth century the search
widened in scope and took on a scholarly character. Rival historical
entrepreneurs developed distinctive styles of history in different centres, but they
were engaged in a common task the recording of a chain of events which had
transformed Arabia and the known world in an astonishingly short time.
Between them they amassed a huge volume of information and set about the
laborious work of compilation and critical scrutiny. Of course there were many
vested interests, competing or conflicting with each other, which either had or
wished to have a stake in the extraordinary story of Islam's rise. Of course the
compendia which took shape, concerning the deeds of the Prophet (the sra), the
conquests (the futh) and subsequent events, were huge, unwieldy, ramshackle
affairs. There are inevitably a multitude of inconsistencies as well as a basic
shared storyline. But the outside observer cannot fail but be impressed by the
scale of the enterprise, by the volume of materials gathered, by the insistence on
citation of sources, by the care often taken in reproducing different versions
rather than conflating them and by the apparent prizing of accuracy of record
above literary elegance. Much of this was in marked contrast to traditional
Graeco-Roman historiography in which style took precedence over scholarship.
A majority of Islamicists, however, now views this early Islamic scholarly
enterprise with deep scepticism. They suspect that the political, legal and, above
all, religious concerns of a later age were brought to bear upon transmitted
historical traditions and affected a massive transmutation. The vested interests of
tribes, clans and individual families are seen a second set of destructive agents,
reshaping the past to enhance or maintain their standing in the present. Finally
and this is the main thrust of the sceptical tendency in this volume it is
argued that the imaginations of beduin and settled story-tellers were so fertile
that qisas and akhbar were poured into once genuine traditions in huge
quantities, at a relatively early stage. The episode of the capture of Arwd, an
island 2 kilometres off the Syrian coast, measuring 800 by 500 metres, is taken
to be typical of conquest narratives in the almost entirely fictional treatment
which it has received.
There is, of course, no reason to suppose that early Islamic historiography
was impervious to distorting influences. Muslims could not escape the
limitations of individual experience and the vagaries of individual memory,
which make it hard, in any culture, to reconstruct a full, accurate and coherent
picture of complex, confusing sets of events. There is plenty of evidence of the
working of these processes in the earliest extant narratives of Muhammad's life
and the conquests, but, for the most part, the divergences and inconsistencies
(large though they may be) are not such as to suggest that other,
historiographically more sinister forces were influential in the formation of the

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corpus of historical traditions before the end of the eighth century. As for vested
interests, it must be remembered that there were many of them and that they
were in competition with each other. It was hard, in a free historiographical
market of this sort, for any particular group to impose a radically reshaped or
fabricated version of the past on its rivals, especially as it would have to
overcome a coalition of well-established interests, with genuine stakes in the
shared past.
Much more serious, though, is the charge that later debates about religious
and legal matters and related political conflicts exercised a profound influence
on the learned world's view of the past, providing an interpretative framework
within which information was assembled, arranged and understood. There is no
doubt that this did happen, that polemics between rival parties (sectarian,
scholarly and political) led to a debasement of scholarship, to a lesser regard for
the painstaking deployment of evidence, to tendentious reworkings of the past.
But it is implausible to present this narrow piety of parties as a prime motivating
force behind the early Islamic historical enterprise. The main corpus of historical
traditions had already taken shape (the sira) or was taking shape (the futh)
before it took serious hold (in the second half of the eighth century). A more
inclusive piety, looking back with awed respect at the achievements of the
Prophet and the Companions, seems to have guided the work of the scholars of
earlier generations.
Equally damaging is the very different charge (the principal one levelled in
this volume) that the irreverent or irresponsible imaginings of story-tellers not
only created a mass of more or less fictional embellishments to sober history but
also managed to exercise a pervasive influence on the scholarly historical
enterprise. This is rather hard to accept, for two main reasons. First it
presupposes an extraordinary lack of discrimination and judgement on the part
of the scholars at work amassing and sorting historical material. And second it
explains the sucess of akhbar by postulating that they began life as small entities
which could insinuate themselves into existing historical narratives and then, in
a second phase of life, start growing and causing serious damage. The life-cycle
ascribed to the khabar, on this hypothesis, does not accord with commonsense.
A process diametrically opposed to that envisaged by Leder seems more likely
in most cases : initially long stories breaking apart and fragmenting with time,
leaving a residue of remembered sayings, punch lines, illustrations of character,
topoi and longer fragments to be scattered over more soundly based historical
narratives.
Nor is it safe to draw general conclusions from the treatment of the Arwd
episode. It is hard to accept Conrad's argument (pp. 389-90) that it can be taken
as a typical example of futh reporting. The island was surely too small to have
had real strategic importance, and the episode of its capture was less likely to
have lodged in individual or collective memories than other more significant
conquests. It should therefore probably be viewed as an unrepresentative event,

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as a minuscule tabula rasa onto which a fictional, stereotypical story could be


inscribed.
It may therefore be posited that there was more continuity in the build-up
of traditions about the life of the Prophet and the conquests and that they were
less malleable than the sceptics suppose. Wholesale embellishment and
invention on the scale envisaged by Leder or that demonstrated for the Arwd
episode would be a yet more extraordinary historical phenomenon than the rise
of Islam itself.
It seems to me that it is the lone positivist voice in this volume which
should be heard and that it is the sceptics who must continue to beat a retreat.
The definitive test, though, as all parties recognise, will come when the main
strands in the history of the Islamic conquests (the futh) are compared, episode
by episode, with what is recorded in non-Islamic sources. Perhaps the most
useful procedure will be to bring into play the richest written historical tradition
of early medieval Christendom, that of Armenia.
This prompts a third and final reflection, concerning the geographical scope
of the Late Antiquity-Early Islam Project. It is confined to the inner core of
Arabia, the Fertile Crescent which envelops it to the north, and Byzantium, its
north-west outlier. Iran remains in the wings, to make a brief entry in the third
workshop (on States, Resources and Armies). Armenia, a zone of interaction
between the two great powers in Late Antiquity and of intensifying conflict
between Byzantium and Islam in the mid seventh century, makes no appearance
at all.
Admittedly boundaries have to be drawn somewhere, sometimes
arbitrarily, but it is a pity that Armenian historical writing was excluded from the
field of inquiry of the first workshop. For three texts contain high-grade material
on the history of the Near East in the seventh and eighth centuries : the chronicle
attributed to Sebeos which was brought to completion during the first Arab civil
war (tr. F. Macler, Histoire d'Hraclius par l'vque Sebos, Paris [1904]), that
of Lewond written at the end of the eighth century (tr. Z. Arzoumanian, History
of the Lewond, The Eminent Vardapet of the Armenians, Philadelphia [1982]),
and The History of the Caucasian Albanians of Movss Dasxurani, dating from
the tenth century but incorporating earlier material of importance (tr. C.J.F.
Dowsett, London [1961]). Their absence inadvertently gives the impression that
there are no trustworthy Christian sources (the material derived from Theophilus
of Edessa being by no means immune to criticism) which throw light on
Christian-Muslim relations in the critical middle decades of the seventh century.
It thus appears to license doubt for the forseeable future about the value of the
corresponding tranche of Arab historical traditions.
In reality, the Armenian sources, which have a demonstrably impressive
record of historical accuracy in their coverage of the first thirty years of the
seventh century, provide a fixed framework within which to evaluate Islamic

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traditions about the conquests. There are grounds for reasonable optimism. The
results of this grander experiment will, I believe, justify historians in making
considerable but critical use of the huge volume of historical material generated
within Islam about its own origins and early history.
James HOWARD- JOHNSTON
Corpus Christi College, Oxford