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To better appreciate The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, it helps to know at least a snippet of history for the time when the novel takes place.
For this abbreviated description, we lean on Benson Bobrick’s The Caliph's Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad. A full citation and additional reading suggestions are printed at the end of the article.
The Prophet Muhammad, born in 570, began to receive revelations from the angel Gabriel when he was 40. The messages were about the oneness of God and the rejection of polytheism, generosity towards the poor and the needy, kind treatment and emancipation of slaves, and the equality between men and women before God. This did not sit well with the local pagan population and in 622, Mohammad and his followers fled Mecca for Medina in fear for their lives.
Over the next eight years, Muhammad and his followers strengthened their forces, built their following, and in 630 attacked and took Mecca. Yet just two years later, in 632, Muhammad died.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Persian and Eastern Roman (Byzant) states, weakened by their 30-year war, had inadvertently created a geopolitical power vacuum that stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Himalayas. As a result, over the next 15 years Muhammad’s followers – the Caliphate – easily conquered Byzantine (Roman) Syria, North Africa and Egypt, and the Iranian empire (which included a province called Iraq).
The Caliphate’s governing strategy was largely inclusive and tolerant of the regions and cultures it dominated. Yet at the core of the Caliphate was an unresolved conflict: Muhammad had died without a male heir. “Within the vast tent or canopy of Islam,” Bobrick writes, “even at times of its utmost triumph, there was intrigue, betrayal, depravity, and violence worthy of the Roman Empire’s darkest days.”
When the third Caliph, Othman, died in 658, a succession dispute arose between Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and Muawiya Umayya, the governor of Syria and Othman’s kin.
The fateful contest that ensued marked the beginning of Islam’s continuing divide between the Sunni and Shiite sects. The Shiites were the partisans (“shia”) of Ali. They maintained that only a direct descendant of the Prophet could act as head of state. The Sunnis, beginning with Muawiya’s adherents, upheld the traditional practice or custom (“sunnah”) of the Muslim community in electing as caliph the man most qualified.
After two significant but indecisive battles, the two sides agreed that the decision on who should become Caliph ought be decided by an arbitration of elders. But before that decision could be made, Ali was brutally murdered, and Muawiya Umayya rose to the throne. This was the beginning of the Umayyad Dynasty, which ruled the Caliphate for the next 90 years, with Syria as “the empire’s center of gravity,” and “Damascus as its capital and military hub.”
Military conquests continued such that, by the turn of the eighth century, in 700, as Bobrick writes, “Islam spanned three continents in a broad swathe of conquest that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus and from the Aral Sea to the cataracts of the Nile.” But near the center of power, in Persia, disaffection with the Umayyads was on the rise.
The Shiites, who denounced the Damascus caliphs as "ungodly usurpers," were supported by the Persians, whom the Umayyads had reduced to a near-servile state; both in turn were joined by the Abbasids, descended from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, and who challenged the Umayyad regime....
In 747, after forging a broad coalition of insurgent groups, the Abbasids raised the standard of revolt. Under Abu Muslim, a manumitted Persian slave, their troops seized southern Persia and Iraq...
This is where The Pet Hawk begins. It is in fact a critical turning point in the history of the region and indeed the world, in particular in cementing the Shia/Sunni and Arab/Iranian divide.
It is 749, and for two years the House of Abbas, led by Abu Muslim, has been battling with the Umayyads for control of the Caliphate.
The protagonist of The Pet Hawk, Nanidat Maniakh, the head of a powerful silk trading house, is unexpectedly thrust into the middle of this conflict, compelled to assume the mantle of a spy.
Nanidat is a Sogdian – an ancestor of modern Uzbeks or Tajiks, yet today we know little about that part of the world 1300 years ago. Through the espionage and adventures of Nanidat, Chen makes a bold, but educated guess that Sogdians, the only nation that truly resisted Arab conquest, played a key role in both the rebellion of 747-750 and the rise of the Abbasids, a dynasty that controlled the center of the known world for the next 500 years and established many of the world borders that stand to this day.
All quotations are from The Caliph's Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad, Bobrick, Benson. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Additional reading suggestions:
The Silk Road: A New History, Valerie Benson. Oxford University Press, 2012.
After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, Lesley Hazleton. Anchor, 2010.
The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad, Lesley Hazleton. Riverhead, 2013.
When Baghdad Ruled the Modern World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty, Hugh Kennedy. De Capo Press, 2006.
The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, Hugh Kennedy. Routledge, 2004.
The Assassins, Bernard Lewis.Basic Books, 2002.
Muhammad’s People: An Anthology of Muslim Civilization, EricSchroeder. Dover, 2002.
"Why Can't Arabs and Iranians Just Get Along?" John Limbert, Foreign Policy. December 1, 2010. A superb article, available online, that discusses how enmity that began in the seventh and eighth centuries, has not abated with time (and lies at the root of modern Middle East conflicts).