Homeland Security

What Made the ‘Sword of Islam’ Conquer Large Parts of the Ancient World?
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Issue Vol. 33.1 Jan-Mar 2018 | Date : 23 Jun , 2018

The deep study of the characteristics of successful Muslim armies is very important for Indian military professionals, because we have Pakistan as our neighbour. Rulers there can unite the polity only when they wage war by overt and covert means onto the territory of Dar al Harab (non-Islamic region). On this important dogma, the views of the Sunnis and Shias are the same. But the Pakistanis forget all about Islam while dealing with the Chinese! Only a military victory on the scale of the Mamluk general Malik Zahir Baybar over the Mongols led by Kitbugha at Ayn Jalut (September 1260 AD), or of the Ottoman Turks’ over the Serbian coalition at Kosovo (June 1389) can prevent Pakistan from disintegrating! India should, therefore, learn to play a cool waiting game while augmenting its strength and must not fall prey to provocations by the Pakistan military.

The Muslim Empire of the past stretched from Mauritania in West Africa to Eastern Turkistan bordering China. It included at one time, the lands of Southern Spain (Andalusia), Sicily, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Cyprus, Crimea, the Circassian territories bordering the Black Sea, Chechnya, Georgia, Armenia and most parts of present day India, besides the territories of the present day Muslim world. The Muslim Empire not only dominated the land, but also ruled the waves for several centuries, thereby controlling much of the world’s commerce. This could not have happened by accident, as multitudes of people with different ethnicities, race, colour, language, culture, and history were amalgamated into the Muslim world. Entire civilizations such as the people of present day Pakistan have forgotten their ancient history and origins as Islam considers the period before the adoption of this religion as ‘jahiliyah’ i.e. the ‘Age of Ignorance’.

Except for a few places such as Malaysia and Indonesia where the local rulers for their convenience adopted Islam, this religion was spread by the sword due to the forcible conversion of the people to Islam after their conquest or by giving them the concession of removal of the unbearable ‘jiziyah’ which was the poll tax amounting to 20 per cent of one’s income. These new convertees over a period of three generations became even more ardent and militant believers, who strived to spread Islam to others as if it was a ‘relay race’ and could, therefore, shed their guilt of having abandoned their previous religious beliefs. The credit for the phenomenal success of Muslim religion should go to the genius of Prophet Muhammad who even though had grown up as an orphan and had experienced the vicissitudes of life, carried out thorough indoctrination of his followers, kept the rules of the new religion simple and socially beneficial, and laid down the tenets for its scrupulous adherence by its followers each day, from birth to death.

Islam became a military expansionist enterprise starting with the First Caliph, the aged Abu Bakr who reigned from 632 to 634 AD…

Since the fourth millennium before the Christian era, Arabia had been the place from where different waves of immigration took place into Egypt, Babylon, Palestine and Syria. The Arab camel can go for five days without water in the desert. This helped to give the Arabs both stealth and cross-country mobility for launching their ‘ghazwa’ (Bedouin raids). The Arabs also loved their purebred horses and were good riders from an early age. ‘Asabiyah’ denotes the spirit of an Arab clan. It implies boundless and unconditional loyalty to fellow clansmen. Islam made full use of the tribal system for military purposes. It settled the colonists in the conquered lands in respective tribes and treated new converts from among the subjugated people as ‘Mawla’ (clients). The Arab, in general, and the Bedouin, in particular, is a born democrat. He meets his Sheikh on an equal footing. Only a person’s household was considered as personal property and everything else was treated as common property. The Arabs considered civilized and settled people to be less happy and much inferior to them, because of their lack of strength and virility caused by their ‘individualistic’ greed. Yet the Arabs proved capable of assimilating other cultures in other lands, when the opportunity arose.

The Origin of Muslim Conquests

In early seventh century AD, in the Middle East, the competing powers were the Eastern Roman Empire, which was Greek in culture and language, with its capital at Byzantium (Constantinople – present day Istanbul) on the Bosporus Strait and the Persian Empire with its capital at Ctesiphon on River Tigris. Due to their internecine wars, they taxed their people heavily and this resulted in great resentment. Syria, Palestine and Egypt were provinces of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantine rulers followed the Greek Orthodox Church which had adopted the ‘Nestorian’ doctrine that Christ had both ‘Divine’ and ‘Human’ nature as accepted by the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 AD. But the bulk of the Aramaic speaking populace of Syria and Palestine were ‘Monophysite’ Christians and their Antioch (Antakia) located Syrian Orthodox Church doctrine insisted that Christ had only ‘Divine’ nature.

Islam became a military expansionist enterprise starting with the First Caliph, the aged Abu Bakr who reigned from 632 to 634 AD. He actively pursued the ‘Riddhah’ (anti-apostasy) Wars after the death of Prophet Muhammad and ensured that all tribes of the Arabian peninsula were converted to Islam. This had the unintended effect of converting all of Arabia into a fervent armed camp, whose energies could be ‘safely’ directed only outwards. Abu Bakr’s chief military leader and extremely successful general was Khalid Walid, who earned the sobriquet ‘the Sword of Islam’. He fired the Arabs with new enthusiasm as the new faith promised equitable rewards after conquests and even much greater rewards in ‘Heaven’, if they incurred death in the pursuit of ‘Islamic’ conquests. Muslim fighters exhibited utter contempt for death and no fears on the battlefield as they had the ‘will to conquer’ whatever be the odds, inculcated by adherence to Islam.

The harsh taxes levied by the Byzantines were drastically reduced and no tax exceeded the 20 per cent limit laid down by Islam…

Outside of the Arabian peninsula and especially in the areas where Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians resided, there was the desirable choice of allowing them to exist as such by exacting jiziyah (tribute) as per the Prophet’s Hadith (practices), as they were considered as “ahl al kitaab” i.e. people who followed a sacred Holy Book describing a monotheistic God, as also mentioned in Surah 9:29 of the Quran. It was not until the third century of the Islamic era i.e. the ninth century of CE that the bulk of the people of Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia converted to Islam mainly to escape paying the heavy burden of jiziyah and to seek identification with the ruling class.

The era of Islamic conquests began when, towards the end of 633 AD, the First Caliph Abu Bakr ordered three detachments of 7,500 cameleers each under the able generals Yazid Sufyan, Amr As and Shurabil Hasanah to invade Southern Syria. This was a province of the Byzantine Empire then ruled by the hitherto able Emperor Heraclius, who had defeated the Persians and been able to extract a favourable treaty from them. In late January 634 AD, Yazid triumphed over the army of Byzantine general Sergius who was in charge of Palestine, at the Battle of the Arabah Depression, south of the Dead Sea. The retreating Byzantines were further attacked and annihilated at a place called Dathin on their way back towards Gaza in early February 634 AD. Heracles thereupon dispatched a new Army under his brother Theodorus to Damascus to get rid of the Arab menace. This Army succeeded in keeping the columns of Amr As and Shurabil Hasanah severely harassed and at bay.

At this stage a critical development occurred. Caliph Abu Bakr in March 634 AD ordered the acclaimed Arab general Khalid Walid who was operating on the frontiers of the Persian Empire to switch over to Southern Syria with a reinforcing column. Starting from a place called Hirah at the northern tip of Lower Euphrates (River Furat) region, he cut across the Arabian desert for 200 miles to reach the oasis of Dumat Jandal (present day Jawf). After reaching there, to confuse the Byzantines, he changed direction to the North and reached Suwa after another 200 miles. Thereafter, he reached the outskirts of Damascus and appeared totally unexpectedly at the rear of the Byzantine army, after completing an excruciating an 18-day ordeal of a legendary march through the waterless deserts, which no army had hithertofore attempted to cross. This action spread rumours and created panic in the Byzantine camp.

Khalid wisely avoided any engagement with the main Byzantine army and then continued to drive South sacking weakly-held posts till he joined up with the other three Arab columns at a place called Ajnadayn. Being the senior Captain, he assumed overall supreme command and control of all the Arab columns and quickly inflicted a crushing defeat on the Byzantine forces in end July 634 AD. Thereafter, the important town of Busra and the Crossing on the Jordan River at Fihl were captured by January 635 AD. The road to Damascus was cleared by inflicting another crushing defeat on the Byzantine forces at Marj Suffar in February 635 AD. Damascus was besieged, and it ultimately surrendered to this previously unknown Muslim power in September 635 AD, after its garrison fled.

Emperor Heraclius soon mustered another 50,000-strong army to evict this new threat from Arabia. The two armies clashed on a hot dusty day in August 636 AD in the Valley of the Yarmuk, a tributary of River Jordan at a place called Ruqqad. The Arabs won a decisive victory. Jerusalem, thereafter, fell to the Arabs in 638 AD. By October 640 AD, they had consolidated their rule over the whole of Syria up to the natural limits of the Taurus mountain range. Soon after the Yarmuk victory, the next Caliph Ummar, who was not favourably inclined towards Khalid Walid, appointed the venerable Companion of the Prophet Abu Ubaydah as the Vice Regent of Syria, to consolidate Arab administration and rule. Due to the unbelievably ‘fair’ treatment (by the standards of those times) of the conquered Syrian and Palestinian subjects as ordered by the strict and austere Rashidun Caliphs Abu Bakr and Ummar, the further expansion of Arab rule to Egypt, Persia, North Africa, Central Asia and Spain was effected mainly by using contingents and troops of Syrian origin! The victorious Arab army did not even enter Damascus after it surrendered. No captured cities were sacked nor their population violated. The harsh taxes levied by the Byzantines were drastically reduced and no tax exceeded the 20 per cent limit laid down by Islam. There was no attempt to coerce conversion to Islam and Syrians were allowed to hold all types of high posts in the administration.

Abu Bakr was uncompromising in his zeal of extending the hold of Islam over the entire people of the Arabian Peninsula…

The Arabs’ Victory over the Persians

In the year 634 AD, the famous Arab military captain Khalid Walid with a 3,000-strong contingent of cameleers was operating on the borders of the Iraq province of the Persian Empire along with the local Shayban Bedouin tribe led by Muthanna Harithah. After losing the War with the Byzantines, the Persian Empire had got further weakened at that time due to internal dissensions. After Khalid’s contingent was transferred to the Syrian Front in mid-634 AD, the Second Caliph Ummar Khattab dispatched a 10,000-strong contingent to Iraq under the able Companion of the Prophet Sa‘ad Waqqas. Both sides bided for time through negotiations to build up their strength. Ultimately, they met at a place called Qadisiyahin end-May 637 AD to seek a decision.

The 50,000-strong Persian Army was led by an experienced general Rostam Farrokhzad. The Arabs were about 25,000 strong after receiving reinforcements on the second day of the battle. Qadisiyah was located on the West Bank of River Ateeq, a tributary of the Furat (River Euphrates). The Muslims had 7,000 horse cavalry too. The Persian army fought hard but was comprehensively defeated on the fourth day, and this victory opened up the doors of Asia for Islamic expansion.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col JK Achuthan (Retd.)

8 GR was commissioned in June 1980. 

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