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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Emergence of Islamic Empire During the Caliphate 
(632-661 AD)
(Part 1)
We live in an integrated world. The ability to connect, communicate and commute has astonishingly increased in recent times.  People ascribing to different religions and from different culture are found in more or less number almost everywhere. Yet the fault-lines still exist and despite this integration, the geographical landscape of the world can still be divided on the basis of faith.  All of the three great Abrahamic religions developed in and around the Hilly Flanks. However, the majority of the people living in that area are the followers of the last of the Prophet of Abrahamic tradition. What makes Islam different from Christianity and Judaism in political terms is its continuous presence in this region ever since its emergence 1400 years back.
The very prevalence of Islamic faith in the Arabian Peninsula, Fertile Crescent and the areas around makes the enquiry that how the expansion of a nascent state that Muhammad established in Medina took place? The death of the Prophet led to widespread insurgency by the unruly Arab tribes.  The geo-political situation of the besieged state was also very critical as two great empires, i.e. Sassanid and Eastern Roman Empire, were flexing muscles right across the north-eastern and western frontiers.  Despite these odds, the Muslim State of Medina showed an incredible resilience. In a short span of time, it was able to make inroads into Persia and Roman East and by the time of the assassination of Ali on 27thof January 661, the whole Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Persia, Kurdistan, Armenia, Syria  and Egypt were under the Muslim rule.  All this happened during the reign of first four Caliphs, a.k.a Rashidun Caliphate (Abu Bakar, Umar Ibn Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Talib). These Caliphs presided over republic which, despite the feud and infighting that took place by the end of this period, was able to expand beyond the frontiers of peninsula and topple the rule of Sassanid and Byzantine rule in the region. Rare in history are examples of such electrifying expansion amidst formidable adversaries are found. It laid the basis for the continued presence of Islamic faith and Muslim people in the region.
The purpose of this writing is to narrate the major historical happenings of this period which last from 632- 661. As geographical expansion necessarily entails a conflict with the surrounding powers, the main emphasis is on the conflicts and wars of the time. It’s a pity that some of the groups today justify their religious violence as necessary to enforce their ideology. The historical expansion of the Islamic Empire through war is taken as justification for violence. However, as this writing will make it clear, most of the times Muslims were provoked into a conflict. The propagation of faith did not constitute the only reason and at times when some preemptive military decisions were taken, there was a strategic ground for that. This makes it further important to understand what happened during the early years.
The article focuses on the events in a chronological order and deal with the time period of each Caliph separately.
The time of Abu Bakar;
Abu Bakar (573-634) was the first Caliph of the four Rashidun. He belonged to the clan Banu Taym of the tribe Quraish. After the demise of Prophet Muhammad he was hastily elected to administer the new state. According to another tradition, Omer consulted the elders and pronounced him as the Caliph.  Syed Amir Ali describes him “as man of fair complexion, thin countenance, of slender built and a stoop”.
The demise of the Prophet led to widespread political upheaval across the Arabian Peninsula.  The centre required the tribes to pay the poor-tax.  The political uncertainty after the Prophet’s death provided an incentive to the tribes scattered across north-east to do away with this obligation.  This movement was spearheaded by one Malik Ibn Nuwaira who contended that Zakat was no more obligatory after the Prophet’s death. This was a highly critical moment for the new state and in a short span of time it was again confined to the city of Medina. False prophets emerged in a futile attempt to fill this political vacuum.
Abu Baker’s immediate tasks were to contain these threats and embolden the spirit of the people. After being elected, he spoke “ Behold me! Behold me with the cares of the government. I am not the best among you. I need all your advice and all your help. If I do well, support me. If I do mistake, counsel me.  To tell the truth to the person commissioned to rule is faithful allegiance. To conceal it is treason. In my sight, the powerful and the weak are alike and to both I wish to render justice.  As I obey God and his Prophet obey me; If I neglect the laws of the God and the Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience”
The main threat to the republic was from north-east and the west.  Figure 1 shows the spatial distribution of the major empires during this time. The Sassanid covered the modern day Iran, Iraq, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and  Central Asia. The Roman East had Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt under its control.  So the Fertile Crescent was almost equally divided between the two empires. The two minor Kingdoms of Ghassanid and Lakhmid were the Roman and Sassanian vassals respectively.
 The Caliph barely had a chance to consolidate his rule when the rebellion at the frontiers brought the state with headlong clash with the neighboring empires. During his reign, these conflicts escalated into multiple theatres of war, in most of which despite being outnumbered and logistically inferior, the army of Saracens prevailed.   During the last days of the Prophet, a Muslim envoy had been killed in Syria. An expedition had been ordered by him to demand reparations for this murder.  An army under the command of Usama bin Zaid was gathered at Jaraf near Medina. The Prophet’s death postponed this expedition which was later on executed by Abu Baker.
Figure 1

Spatial distribution of the empires on the eve of Muslim era
The expedition was a success but it also threatened the Byzantine who had suzerainty over these Christian Arab tribes. The Christian tribes in the north-east also rose up to break away. Khalid bin Walid along with Mothana was entrusted with the task to pacify these insurgencies. This area bordered Al- Hira and Chaldea, which were the possessions of Sassanid.  Chaldea is that historical marshy land located between the Euphrates and Tigris near Shatull Arab, the place where these two rivers converge.
These wandering tribes were scattered across this region from the tip of Persian Gulf to westward along the Euphrates.  These tribes were Arab in race but mostly Christian in faith. The punitive raids conducted by Khalid Bin Walid though pacified the tribes who were erstwhile under the Muslim control but this also led to a friction between Saracens and the kingdom of Hira. The Kingdom of Hira, situated to the south of present day Kufa along the Euphrates, was under the Sassanid rule [see Figure 2] . The tribes attached to Hirrite Kingdom carried out raids into the area under the Muslim control. The conflict had a clear geographical and strategic logic to it. The Kingdom of Hira saw a threat in Muslim expeditions.  Supported by Chaldea, the ruler of Hira gathered a large force which was defeated and Hira occupied by the Saracens.
Figure 2

During this time, Khalid bin Walid was called back to Medina and Mothana was left to command the forces at Persian frontier. Khalid, the son of Walid, was dispatched to another theatre of war against the mighty Romans at present day Jordan- Palestine border.  The consequent battle with the Christian army turned out to be one of the historical battles in the history of mankind. Had the result of this battle been different, so would have been the present day demography of the Middle East. The battle ended the Roman rule in the region and shortly whole of Syria and Palestine were under the Muslim rule.

Battle of Yermuk  
The expedition of Usama bin Zaid in Syria sent shockwaves throughout the Roman East political domain. The area to the west of Chaldea all along the Fertile Crescent to the Palestine was under the control of Byzantine. The Roman Emperor Heraclius sensed the looming threat and gathered a large army at Balca. The raids from the Syrian frontier compelled the Caliph to send another force. This expedition was however met with disastrous defeat. Another force was gathered to fight the encroaching Roman army but this time a different strategy was applied. The force was divided into four divisions. A division under the command of Abu Obaidah was to concentrate its effort on Homs [Emese], Amr- Al Aas was to lead the force to Palestine, Yezid bin Abu Sufian was given the command of Damascus division whereas the soldiers under Shorabil were to fight in Jordan valley [See Figure 3]. All these divisions moved forward supporting each other. The Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius sent four separate divisions against the Muslim army. The Roman force totaled 240000 whereas the Muslim army had only 40000 fighters.   The Saracens army was outnumbered by 6 to 1 and this disadvantage was going to be further exacerbated in the separate battles. Therefore it was decided to concentrate forces at one place and fight the Romans together. The Muslim generals along with their forces gathered in April 634 at a place called Jualan near river Yermuk, at today’s Syrian -Jordan border. 
Khalid bin Walid was dispatched from Persian front to Yermuk to lead the Muslim forces in one of the decisive battle ever. Syria was under the complete control of the Eastern Roman Empire. This battle was going to seal the fate of Byzantine in Syria and bring it completely under the Islamic dominion. Khalid bin Walid’s name was going to be remembered as one of the greatest military tacticians of all times. Byzantine army was numerically and logistically far superior to that of Muslims and the common-sense implied an easy victory for Roman army.
The Romans aware of Saracen’s strategy also concentrated their forces by the river Yermuk. Almost thirty miles before entering Jordan, the river forms a semi-circular loop. A ravine known as Wakusa or Wadi ar Raqqad provides an entrance to the plain by the river bank. The Romans thought of it as naturally protected ideal place for encampment and entered through the ravine. The Saracens army gathered outside to attack the Roman the moment they come out. Despite their superior numbers, the Romans did not issue from within and the stalemate existed for almost two months. The Caliph then dispatched Khalid Bin Walid to take command of Saracens.   The battle finally took place on 30th of August 634 when finally the Roman army, inspired by the priests, came out.  Half of the Roman army was annihilated. The estimated loss  was 140000 killed , some fled to Syria and the rest were drowned in the river. The Muslim lost 3000 men. For every Saracen soldier who fell in the battle field, almost 47 Roman soldiers were killed. This incredible battle changed the course of history for the time to come. The whole of Levant fell under the Muslim rule afterwards. The implication of Saracens victory was such that, had they lost the battle, we might have been living an entirely different world today.
Figure 3

Abu Bakar however did not live to see Saracen’s victory over the Romans and died 7 days before the battle, on 23rd of August 634.  Khalid bin Walid was informed of the death of the Caliph before the battle but he did not publish the news till the victory. That was the tenacity of one of the great generals of all time.
Abu Bakar’s rule lasted for two and half years. During his reign, the emerging Islamic Empire had come into conflict with the Sassanid and Eastern Roman Empires.  Two major battles against these empires took place but the expansion into Persia and Levant happened during the time of Omer Ibn Khattab.

Figure 4

Across the ravines lie the battlefield of Yermuk

Abu Bakar was one of the most highly respected Companion of the Prophet and was known as “Al SADIQ”( The Truthful). The level of his honesty can be judged by the fact that even on his death bed he was troubled by the pay he had taken from the treasury. Though a successful merchant himself, after becoming Caliph he concentrated his efforts on the public affairs and management of the empire.  To compensate for his expenses, he was allowed to take 6000 Dirhem annually from the treasury which he refunded by selling a part of his property. Such were the immediate companions of Prophet. Such was character of one of the greatest human being in the history of Muslims.


  1. I am going to read this now.

    I really really want to know deeper about the unknown facts and authenticity of known facts of expansive wars from a Sacred point of view, and not from rationalistic, humanistic one.

    Why are you now writing more!?

  2. Please write on persian and levant conquests too....