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Research project

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

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 of 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?

2017 - 2021
Petra Sijpesteijn
ERC Consolidator Grant ERC Consolidator Grant

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 will uniquely incorporate 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 will critically advance our understanding of a world historical event, make a radically new contribution to empire studies, and connect and synergise area studies and disciplinary inquiry.

Project website

For up-to-date news about events and research, please visit the Embedding Conquest project website on Humanities Commons.

For more information, please contact emco@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

Alon Dar

Dar, Alon. “”…so that the descendants of the descendants [of the Muslims] may profit by it”: ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, the Muslim Army and the Decision not to Divide the Lands of Alexandria.” In Living the End of Antiquity: Individual Histories from Byzantine to Islamic Egypt, edited by Sabine R. Huebner, Eugenio Garosi, Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, Matthias Müller, Stefanie Schmidt and Matthias Stern. Millenium Studies. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, forthcoming.

Edmund Hayes

Hayes, E. “When is an Arab not an Arab?” Leiden Islam Blog, 12 October 2018.

Hayes, E. “Early Islamic Cosmopolitanism? Constructing the ʾUmma of India in Pre-Mongol Muslim Scholarship.” Comparative Islamic Studies, special issue on “Iranian Cosmopolitanisms.” Iranian Studies 13, no 1-2 (2017): 75-120.

Hayes, E. “The Imams as Economic Actors: Early Imami Shiʿism as a “Sacred Economy”.” In The Early Islamic Economy, 750-1050, edited by Fanny Bessard and Hugh Kennedy. Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Hayes, E. “Perversion and Subversion: Gender Relations and Illicit Sexuality in Ibn Dāniyāl’s Shadow Play.” In Queering the Mediterranean, edited by Peter Thompson and Felipe Rojas. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Hayes, E. Reason, Revelation, and Esotericism: The Construction of Scholarly Authority in Shiʿi Islam, edited by Edmund Hayes and Rodrigo Adem, Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Hayes, E. “The Imam who Might have Been: Jaʿfar ‘the Liar’, his Followers, and the Negotiation between Political Realism and Esotericist Idealism.” In Reason, Revelation, and Esotericism: The Construction of Scholarly Authority in Shiʿi Islam, edited by Edmund Hayes and Rodrigo Adem. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Reza Huseini

Huseini, S.R. “Conquest through Negotiation: The Arab Takeover of Qom in Sasanian Iran.” Leiden Islam Blog, 6 December 2019.

Huseini, S. R. “Thinking in Arabic, writing in Sogdian: Arab-Sogidian Diplomatic Relation in early eight Century.” In Proceedings Volume, Documents and Manuscripts in the Arab-Islamic World: The Seventh International Society for Arabic Papyrology (ISAP) Conference (Berlin, 20-23 March, 2018), edited by Kaplony Andreas. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Huseini, S.R. “Acts of Protection represented in Bactrian Documents.” In Acts of Protection in Early Islamicate Societies, edited by E. Scheerlinck and E. Hayes. Special issue of Annales Islamologiques, forthcoming.

Eline Scheerlinck

Scheerlinck, E. “The governor’s orders: part two.” Leiden Islam Blog, 24 January 2020.

Scheerlinck, E. “Coming out of the cave: monks in society in seventh and eighth century Egypt.” Leiden Medievalists Blog, 28 June 2019.

Scheerlinck, E. “The governor’s orders: part one.” Leiden Islam Blog, 20 June 2019.

Scheerlinck, E. and M. Brand (eds.). Religious Identifications in Late Antique Papyri. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. “Like oil in their bones. Banning and cursing by episcopal letter beyond Late Antiquity.” In Religious Identifications in Late Antique Papyri, edited by M. Brand and E. Scheerlinck. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. and M. Brand. “Letter with complaint and request about garments for a celebration.” In Papyrologica Lugduno-Batava 36. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. and E. Hayes (eds.). Acts of Protection in Early Islamicate Societies. Special issue of Annales Islamologiques, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. and E. Hayes. “Acts of Protection in Early Islamicate Societies: Introduction.” In Acts of Protection in Early Islamicate Societies, edited by E. Scheerlinck and E. Hayes. Special issue of Annales Islamologiques, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. “Asking for protection: Coptic protection documents and village life in Early Islamic Egypt.” In cts of Protection in Early Islamicate Societies, edited by E. Scheerlinck and E. Hayes. Special issue of Annales Islamologiques, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. “Letter about a guarantee from the Apa Apollo monastery in Bawit.” In Coptica Parisina. Textes et documents de la 6e université d’été de papyrologie copte (P. Sorb. Copt.). Journal of Coptic Studies 22, forthcoming.

Scheerlinck, E. “List of expenses.” In Coptica Parisina. Textes et documents de la 6e université d’été de papyrologie copte (P. Sorb. Copt.). Journal of Coptic Studies 22, forthcoming.

Petra Sijpesteijn

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “O sūq mediterrâneo: comércio e trocas ao redor do mediterrâneo.” In O Mediterrâneo medieval reconsiderado, edited by Néri de Barros Almeida and Robson Della Torre, 153-196. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2019.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Ziek, zwak en misselijk: hulpbrieven uit middeleeuws Egypte.” Leiden Islam Blog, 28 March 2019.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Beards, Braids and Moustachios: Exploring the Social Meaning of Hair in the Mediaeval Muslim World.” Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 30, no. 1 (2018): 4-8.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Shaving Hair and Beards in Early Islamic Egypt: An Arab Innovation?” Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 30, no. 1 (2018): 9-25.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Expressing New Rule: Seals From Early Islamic Egypt and Syria, 600-800 CE.” The Medieval Globe 4, no. 1 (2018): 99-148.

Sijpesteijn, P.M, M. Legendre and A. Delattre. “Introduction.” In Authority and Control in the Countryside: From Antiquity to Islam in the Mediterranean and Near East (6th-10th Century), edited by P.M. Sijpesteijn, M. Legendre and A. Delattre, 1-9. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Policing, Punishing and Prisons in the Early Islamic Egyptian Countryside (640–850 CE).” In Authority and Control in the Countryside: From Antiquity to Islam in the Mediterranean and Near East (6th-10th Century), edited by P.M. Sijpesteijn, M. Legendre and A. Delattre, 547-588. Leiden: Brill, 2018.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Mohammeds wereld in Egypte.” In Mohammed en de Late Oudheid, edited by Josephine van den Bent, Floris van den Eijnde and Johan Weststeijn, 137-158. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2018.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Een taboe nog groter dan slavernij.” Leiden Islam Blog, 24 November 2017.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Eeuwig Egypte.” Leiden Islam Blog, 5 October 2017.

Sijpesteijn, P.M. “Delegation of Judicial Power in Abbasid Egypt.” In Legal Documents as Sources for the History of Muslim Societies, edited by M.L.M. van Berkel, L.P.H.M. Buskens and P.M. Sijpesteijn, 61–84. Leiden: Brill, 2017.


Mon 20-Wed 22 Jan EmCo guest: Jack Tannous (Princeton University)  
Thu 12-Fri 13 Mar Workshop: “Acts of Excommunication” in the Late Antique and Early Islamicate Middle East Speaker: 
Ed Hayes
Wed 8-Thu 9 Apr EmCo guest: Maaike van Berkel (Radboud University Nijmegen)  
Mon 14-Wed 16 Sep EmCo guest: Paul Cobb (University of Pennsylvania)  
Thu 17- Fri 18 Sep Workshop: Contesting Empires: Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara between the Sasanians, the Tang, Turkic rulers, the Umayyads and the early Abbasids (ca. 600-1000 CE) Speaker:
Reza Huseini
Wed 4-Fri 6 Nov Conference: Politics, Patronage and Protection: Mechanisms of Inclusion and Expectations of Justice in the Medieval Muslim World  
Thu 3-Fri 4 Dec Workshop: Textual Sources and Geographies of Slavery in the Early-Islamic Empire, ca. 600-1000 CE Speakers:
Ed Hayes
Reza Huseini



Tue 3-Fri 6 Dec Conference: Ties that Bind. Mechanisms and Structures of Social Dependency in the Early Islamic Empire

Alon Dar
Ed Hayes
Reza Huseini
Eline Scheerlinck
Petra Sijpesteijn

Mon 18-Fri 22 Nov EmCo guest: Minoru Inaba (Kyoto University)    
Sun 17 Nov Leidse lezing over de Arabische taal en cultuur at the National Museum of Antiquities Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: De Levende Koran
Thu 7-Fri 8 Nov Workshop: Rebellions and Revolts in the Early Caliphate

Alon Dar
Reza Huseini

Tue 29-Wed 30 Sep Workshop: coins By Arianna D'Ottone (Sapienza-University of Rome) Link
Mon 21 Oct Lecture at Columbia Global Centers in Tunis Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Global Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean
Wed 9 Oct EmCo guest: Antoine Borrut (University of Maryland)    
Mon 30 Sep-Wed 2 Oct EmCo guest: Étienne de La Vaissière (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS)    
Thu 26 Sep LUCIS' What's New?! lecture Title: The Agents of the Hidden Imam and the Genesis of Twelver Shi’ism
Speaker: Ed Hayes
Thu 19 Sep LIAS Canonical Cultures research network Topic: Sacred Economies
Speaker: Ed Hayes
Thu 12-Sat 14 Sep  Conference: Negotiation in Conquest: wars, treaties and recollections of the rise of the Caliphate   Link
Mon 9-Fri 13 Sep

Conference: Ninth European Conference of Iranian Studies (ECIS 9)

Title: The Idea and Practice of Justice in Eastern Iranian World in Late Antiquity: The Case of Bactria/Tukharistan
Speaker: Reza Huseini

Sun 28 juli-Sat 3 Aug

Conference: 29th International Congress of Papyrology

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Editing Arabic Papyri: A Special Challenge
Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title 1: 

A Coptic letter from the governor of Egypt? The case of P.Ryl.Copt. 277
Title 2: 
The Nessana papyri on their way to papyri.info. The unpublished fragments in the Morgan Library & Museum

Mon 8-Thu 11 July Conference: Movement and Mobility in the Medieval Mediterranean (6th – 15th centuries) Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Global Networks: Mobility and Exchange in the Mediterranean (600-1000)
Thu 20-Fri 21 June Workshop: Decipher II Invited guests: Jennifer Cromwell, Caroline Humfress, Rachel Mairs, Elisabeth O'Connell, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Marina Rustow
Venue: Leiden University
Thu 6-Fri 7 June EmCo guest: Federico Morelli (Universität Wien)    
Mon 20-Wed 23 May EmCo guest: Nicholas Sims-Williams (SOAS)    
Fri 10 May House of wisdom lecture Speaker: Reza Huseini
Title: Destruction of Bamiyan Buddha: Taliban Iconoclasm and Hazara Response
Fri 3 May Book launch: Authority and Control in the Countryside

Alon Dar
Eline Scheerlinck
Petra Sijpesteijn

Thu 24-Fri 25 January Workshop: Acts of Protection in the early Islamic Empire

Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: Coptic "protection letters"

Wed 23 January EmCo guest: Hugh Kennedy (SOAS)    



Tue 27 November Lunch talk Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: Networks of Protection. Travel documents in Early Islamic Egypt
Thu 1 November EmCo guest: Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester)    
Thu 25 October EmCo and LUCIS guest: Wadad Kadi (University of Chicago)   Link
Thu 11-Sat 13 October

Conference: The Reach of Empire – The Early Islamic Empire at Work

Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: Administration and the Use of Coptic in Early Islamic Egypt. A Case Study on Taxes and Travel
Venue: Hamburg University
Sun 30 September

Leiden Lecture on Arabic Language and Culture

Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: Vluchtelingen en hun beschermers in de Koptische en Griekse papyri van vroeg-islamitisch Egypte
Venue: National Museum of Antiquities

Thu 13-Fri 14 September EmCo guest: Eduardo Manzano Moreno (Spanish National Research Council - CSIC)     
Thu 30 August

Conference: Asia Beyond Boundaries conference

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Venue: Leiden University
Mon 25-Wed 27 June EmCo guest: Robert Hoyland (New York University)    
Thu 22 June OCBR Annual Lecture Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Venue: University of Oxford
Fri 15 June Lecture Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Sacrificing virgins to the Nile in early Islamic Egypt
Venue: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut München
Thu 7 June

Conference: MEISAI (Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel)

Speaker: Alon Dar
Title: Two Imperial Projects: the Building of the Muslim fleet and  the Umayyad  Mosque
Venue: Tel Aviv University

Thu 17-Fri 18 May Conference: Correspondence, Cross-Pollination and Control

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Regime Change and Administrative Repercussions: Syrian Officials at Work in Egypt

Speaker: Edmund Hayes
Title: Integration and Exclusion: Correspondence and Power in Imami Shiʿism

Venue: Leiden University

Mon 7-Tue 8 May

Conference: Documents and Institutions in the Late Ancient and Medieval Worlds

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Venue: Princeton University
Thu 12-Fri 13 April Workshop on letters Invited commentators: Maaike van Berkel, Werner Diem, Ahmad Khan, Frederic Krueger, Maurice Pomerantz
Venue: Leiden University
Fri 6-Sat 7 April

Symposium: Navigating Language in the early Islamic World

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Venue: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Tue 20-Fri 23 March International Society for Arabic Papyrology (ISAP) VII conference

Speaker: Reza Huseini
Title: Thinking in Arabic, Writing in Sogdian: Diplomatic Relations Between the Arabs and the Local Rulers in Transoxiana in the Early Eighth Century

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: "After God, I turn to you." Religious Expressions in Arabic Papyrus Letters

Poster presentation: Alon Dar
Title: Power or Persuasion: Qurra b. Sharīk's Letters

Speaker: Edmund Hayes
Title: The Epistolary Imam: Comparing the Correspondence of the Shii Imam with Documentary Letters

Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: "We will not require anything of you, except for...": Permits, Protection and Problem Solving in Early Islamic Egypt

Venue: Berlin

Mon 12-Mon 19 March EmCo guest: Fred Donner (University of Chicago)    
Thu 15-Fri 16 February EmCo guest: Arietta Papaconstantinou (University of Reading)    
Thu 1-Fri 2 February EmCo guest: Jürgen Paul (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg)    



Thu 7-Fri 8 December Workshop: Fiddling with Documents Invited guests: Jennifer Cromwell, Rachel Mairs, Anastasia Maravela, Elisabeth O'Connell, Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Marina Rustow
Venue: Leiden University
Mon 13-Tue 14 November EmCo guest: Majied Robinson (University of Edinburgh)    
Thu 9 – Sat 11 November

Conference: Late Antique Religion in Practice: Papyri and the Dynamics of Religious Identification

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: Blessings for the Prophet and his Family

Speaker: Eline Scheerlinck
Title: “Like oil in their bones”: Threats, Excommunication and Religious Identification beyond Late Antiquity

Venue: Leiden University

Thu 26 October

Seminar: Structuring Knowledge: Asking Favours in Medieval Egypt: Informal Requests and Petitions in Papyrus Letters

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn

Venue: Durham University, UK

Mon 18-Tue 19 September

Workshop: The Iranian World in Late Antiquity: A Graduate Student Workshop

Speaker: Reza Huseini
Title: Marriage Regulations in the Eastern Iranian World in Late Antiquity: The Documentary Evidences
Venue: University of Chicago Center in Paris

Thu 31 August-Fri 1 September EmCo guest: Arezou Azad (University of Birmingham)    
Tue 30-Wed 31 May

Conference: Benefits of Office: Privilege and Loyalty in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title talk: Estate-holders vs. bureaucrats. Building loyalty to the state in early Islamic Egypt
Venue: VU University Amsterdam

Tue 9-Sat 13 May EmCo guest: Jennifer Cromwell (Manchester Metropolitan University)    
Thu 20-Sat 22 April

Conference: Nodes, Networks, Orders: Three Global History Workshops on Transformative Connectivity

Speaker: Reza Huseini
Title: Sixteenth century millenarianism and the making of the Tarikhi Alfi
Venue: Leiden University

Thu 14-Fri 15 April

Seminar: Eastern Mediterranean Seminar “Papyri and History”

Speaker: Petra Sijpesteijn
Title: What did the Egyptians read? Reconstructing the intellectual milieu in early Islamic Egypt through the papyri
Venue: University of Chicago



Eline Scheerlinck | The governor’s orders: part two

In ‘The Governor’s Orders, Part One’, we looked at the world of eighth century Egypt through the eyes of Shenoute, a village headman. The real protagonist of the story, and the object that triggered that exercise in historical imagination, was an actual document from Islamic Egypt. This post explores the contents of the real-life artefact, and its importance among our sources on the Arab-Muslim rule of the province. Read more

This blog was also published on Leiden Islam Blog (24 January 2020). 

Reza Huseini | The Diverse Processes of the Conquests of Sasanian Iran

When we use the term “Early Muslim Conquests,” we usually think of a one-way process: the Arabs taking a place with violence and causing disruption and without any cooperation from the local population. But did the early Muslim “conquests” of Sasanian Iran follow this pattern? Read more

This blog - in slightly different form - was also published on Leiden Islam Blog (6 December 2019). 

Eline Scheerlinck | Coming out of the cave: monks in society in seventh and eighth century Egypt

Starvation, solitude and saintliness. These are not the first words that come to mind when looking at the lives of Egyptian monks in the seventh and eighth century. At least, not when you look at their letters and documents on papyrus and potsherds. Read more

Ed Hayes | Burn after reading epistolary heresy in tenth century baghdad

A police raid, a cache of letters, an inquisition, an execution. Sometimes you have to be careful what you write. Read more

Eline Scheerlinck | The governor's orders: part one

Have you ever wondered what the Arab conquests of Egypt meant for the average Egyptian villager? The following story takes place a few years after 700, in the countryside of Middle Egypt. It’s based on a Coptic document that belonged to the management of the country by the Arab-Muslim government. Read more

This blog was also published on Leiden Islam Blog (20 June 2019). 

Alon Dar | Hide and seek: forms of protection in early islam

Recently, an unusual religious service was held in Bethel church, The Hague. Reverends from all over the Netherlands held a constant service in order to protect five members of an Armenian family, facing deportation back to their country. The family took refuge in the church for three months, thanks to Dutch law which determines that state authorities cannot interrupt a religious service. They finally received an asylum status. Read more

Petra Sijpesteijn | Ziek, zwak en misselijk: hulpbrieven uit middeleeuws Egypte

In brieven uit middeleeuws Egypte beschrijven mensen hun problemen en vragen ze om hulp. Op het eerste gezicht schetsen zij een grimmige wereld waar de willekeur overheerst. Tegelijkertijd verraadt het stramien van de brieven toch een zekere vastigheid. Read more

Reza Huseini | Bactrian documents: new source for the early islamic history of Tukharistan

Traditionally, the history of the early Muslim conquests of Tukharistan is based on Arabic historical narratives compiled during the early Abbasid period. However, they are written in Arabic by Muslim figures for Arabic speaking audiences within a particular framework to represent an ideal image of the past, which do not necessarily accurately record it. Fortunately, the discovery of Bactrian documents from Tukharistan fills this gap to some extent. Read more

Ed Hayes | When is an Arab not an Arab?

Recent and ongoing research at Leiden and elsewhere is changing the way we think about the words “Arab”, “Arabian” and “Muslim” in early Islam and before. Ed Hayes reflects on recent conversations with colleagues to consider “what’s in a name”? Read more

Did the Early Muslim Empire have a Language Policy? - Petra Sijpesteijn

Movement and Mobility in the Medieval Mediterranean - Petra Sijpesteijn

ScientistWanted | Eline Scheerlinck – Griekse en Koptische papyrologie

Passion in Profession | Petra Sijpesteijn - Daily Life Experiences

Passion in Profession | Said Reza Huseini - Monuments

Leiden | Islam interview series - Petra Sijpesteijn

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