Ancient History & Civilisation

The Coming of Islam

At that time a certain man from among those same sons of Ishmael whose name was Mahmet, a merchant, as if by God's command appeared to them as a preacher and the path of truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learned and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father Abraham. So Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: “With an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him for ever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Israel. But now you are the sons of Abraham, and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.” (The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos 135, trans. R. W. Thompson)

The coming of Islam was a decisive moment. The last great conflict of the ancient world between Rome and Persia had brought both contestants to the verge of collapse. These events coincided with the kindling of Arab ambitions by the prophet Muhammad. From 622 until his death a decade later Muhammad led a rapidly growing coalition of Arab tribes on a campaign to overthrow the world order. In 636, four years after his death, the forces of Islam led by Omar, the second caliph, won the battle of Yarmuk to claim control of Syria, and two years later overwhelmed a Sassanian army at Qadisiya (near Hira), thus decisively establishing a new era in the history of the Near East.

It is beyond the scope of this book to analyze the origins of Islam and the rise of Arab power, but the bare facts are inescapable. In 622 Muhammad, the leader of the Hashemite branch of the Qurayshi tribe which controlled the area of western Arabia around Mecca, was exiled by his tribe and took refuge in Medina. This year of exile, hijra, became the era from which the Islamic calendar started. Over the following decade Muhammad constructed his power, which was based on twin foundations. Firstly, he relied on the warrior prowess of his followers, who began to enrich themselves at the expense of the trading caravans and the neighboring tribes. Secondly, and decisively, he presented himself as the prophet of a new monotheism. This doctrine drew both on pagan beliefs – the famous Black Stone of Mecca had been the focal point of a major local cult – and on Jewish and Biblical Christian traditions, which had been assimilated by many of the Arab peoples, but recast them into an extreme form of monotheism which recognized only Allah as God. This new creed was imposed on Muhammad's followers and on all those who chose to ally themselves with the new Arab power.

The Arab tribes had long since proved themselves as a military force to be reckoned with in the struggles between Rome and Persia. Many of the campaigns between the settled zones of Syria and the Euphrates had been conducted by the Lakhmids for the Sassanians and the Ghassanids for the Romans. These peoples had built up settlements in the previously thinly populated marginal regions around the desert, which complemented their traditional transhumant lifestyles. Moreover, the flourishing cities of Mesopotamia and the Near East, on either side of the imperial frontier, had attracted Arab settlers, bringing about a steady transformation in the demographic profile of the region. This Arabization of the Levant was a vital precursor to the military onslaught which was launched by Muhammad's followers. Before his death in 632 the prophet had taken over control of Medina, and his followers were the dominant force in western Arabia and the Hijaz as far north as the Gulf of Aqaba and the Wadi Rumm.42 Religious and political leadership of the new movement passed to a series of caliphs (God's deputies), which began with Abu Bakr, and the early phase of Arab raiding was transformed into a holy war against non-believers. The cities of Transjordan were overwhelmed from 633 and Damascus fell to the Arabs in 635. In 636 the coalition of Muhammad's followers defeated the Roman field armies of Armenia and Oriens at the river Yarmuk in northern Jordan, on the route between Damascus and Jerash. This was the decisive battle.

But the Greek king could raise no more troops to oppose them. So they divided their forces into three parts. One part went to Egypt and seized the country as far as Alexandria. One part was in the north, opposing the Greek empire. And in the twinkling of an eye they occupied the land from the edge of the sea as far as the bank of the great river Euphrates; and on the other side of the river they occupied Urha [Edessa] and all the cities of Mesopotamia. The third part went to the east, against the kingdom of Persia. (The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos 137, trans. R. W. Thompson)

Jerusalem was captured in 638 after a lengthy siege, although on this occasion the city's holy Christian relics were rescued and taken to Constantinople. Caesarea Maritima fell two years later, and Alexandria, despite prolonged resistance, in 641. Although it was briefly recaptured, by the mid-640s Egypt was definitively in Arab hands.43

Neither Rome nor Persia had the military capacity to resist the Arab advance. The collapse of the Sassanian Empire was even more drastic. Two years after a Muslim force had first moved into southern Iraq, an Arab army defeated numerically superior Persian forces at the battle of Qadisiyya, close to the old Lakhmid stronghold of al-Hira. The Sassanians now abandoned their capital at Ctesiphon, known to the Arab sources as Al-Madain, and withdrew into the Zagros Mountains. They thus relinquished the economic powerhouse of Mesopotamia for their traditional highland homeland. In 642 the Arabs won the battle of Nihavand, and as a result gained control of the main strategic pass from central Mesopotamia to the northern Iranian plateau. The last Sassanian ruler, Yazdgird III, fled before the advancing army as Darius III had fled before Alexander. Like his Achaemenid predecessor, Yazdgird's life ended not on the battlefield but at the hands of an assassin, in the furthest northeast corner of his former kingdom, at Merv in 651. The Islamic conquerors had reached central Asia within twenty years of Muhammad's death.

They met sterner resistance from Rome. The cities of northern Syria and Mesopotamia, including Antioch, Edessa, and Dara, had fallen before the death of Heraclius in 641. Armenia as well as Azerbaijan, which Heraclius had ceded to Shahrvaraz, offered no significant resistance. An Arab raid even reached Chalcedon in 653. However, Roman resolution, bolstered by the new military organization which Heraclius had introduced, prevented the conquest of Asia Minor, and a new boundary was drawn along the line of the Taurus across Anatolia, from Seleucia in the southwest to Trapezus in the northeast on the Black Sea. This was now the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire with the Muslim-ruled world.44

Historians have struggled to find explanations for the rapidity and decisiveness of the early Islamic conquests. Establishing a narrative for the early years is in itself problematic. The Muslim historical tradition, which formed about 150 years after the hijra, presented a received idea of Islamic origins which had emerged over six generations of oral transmission. Making sense of the conflicting strands that lay behind the later authorized version is a task of extraordinary difficulty.45 For this reason, the modest quantity of information about the conquests that can be identified in non-Islamic sources is particularly important, in particular the evidence of the West Syrian chronicles of the mid-seventh century and of the Armenian history attributed to Sebeos, which has twice been cited above to provide a near contemporary view of the early impact of Islam. These external and relatively dispassionate observers provide evidence which must be integrated into any narrative with a claim to historical reliability.46

Two factors above all contributed to early Arab superiority over the Romans and Sassanians in the Levant. The Arabs developed a high level of military organization and a capacity for aggressive warfare which was comparable to that of the great steppic confederations of Huns, Avars, and Turks. As in those cases, the diverse Arab clans and small tribes were fused into large warrior nations which could mobilize sufficient forces to challenge the permanent empires of the classical world. The Arabs differed from the nomads of the steppes in that they were not primarily united by obedience to a dominant and charismatic individual leader, but by a compelling religious idea. The Islamic state was based on the notion of umma, the community of believers, which transformed Arab tribal society. The community was marked by its unconditional allegiance to the one God. The only intermediate authority that the umma recognized was that of his prophet Muhammad. He, and his followers the caliphs, thus established political leadership over the Islamic nation. The faith was both militant and exclusive. All followers of Muhammad were obliged to join the umma; leaving the alliance was treated as apostasy from God. The early Islamic nation thus achieved a complete fusion of political and religious loyalty, in a form that was independent of the monotheism of the Christian empire of Constantinople or the Mazdaean traditions of the Sassanians. Just as the intensification of Christian worship, and in particular the Marian cult, had strengthened Roman solidarity and the will to empire during Heraclius' wars, so the fusion of religious and political identities in Islam produced a new form of imperial power, in which conquest was to be seen as the purest expression of God's will for his chosen people. The holy war of the Christian empire was outmatched by a jihad.

The impact of the Arab conquests, like that of most wars, is told both in ancient and modern historiography from the point of view of the victors. In truth the Islamic warriors and their leaders had to develop the means of controlling a world of enormous cultural and religious complexity, as well as mastering a historical tradition that had been created by the Roman Empire. We may end with one glimpse of these complexities, as they are revealed by what may be the earliest mention by a Greek writer of the Arab invasions of southern Syria in a work known as the Doctrina Iacobi (The Teachings of Jacob), perhaps written in 634.47 The Doctrina Iacobi, a work written in Palestine, is prime evidence for the militant Christianity of Heraclius' later years, as religion became the main ideological force which held the eastern Roman Empire together in its struggle with the Sassanians, precisely as its territorial possessions in the Near East were disintegrating. It also, almost as an aside, offers the earliest evidence for the arrival of the new force of Islam. Even this first glimpse of Muhammad's impact contains the perception that the religious motives which spurred the invading Arabs would realign the endemic conflicts between Christians and Jews and transform the religious landscape of the Near East and North Africa. The setting is the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity in the African capital of Carthage on the day of Pentecost 632. This itself was a reflection of Heraclius' aggressive Christian politics and the enduring power of the Roman Empire, which still reached to the exarchate of Africa. Among the converts was a Jewish trader from Palestine, Jacob, who after forcible baptism had come to see the truth of Christianity, and undertook the task of persuading fellow Jews to change their beliefs. The centerpiece of the work is a dialogue between Jacob and a recent arrival from Palestine, Justus. In the course of their discussion Justus quoted from a letter that he had received from his brother Abraham about the recent killing of a Roman commander by the Arabs.

When the candidatus (Roman officer) was killed by the Saracens, I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying “the officer has been killed,” and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man, well-versed in the scriptures, and I said to him: “What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?” He replied, groaning deeply: “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly there are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God, and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared.” So I, Abraham, enquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible. (Teachings of JacobV.16, 209, trans. Hoyland)

The message and the warning of Abraham seem as relevant in the contemporary world as they were when they were written in the seventh century. The intractable conflicts of the Middle East have re-emerged after the end of the Cold War. The region of Palestine, the first objective of Muhammad's followers led by the first caliph Abu Bakr in 632/3, is the epicenter of global insecurity, and the conflicting interests and aspirations – territorial, ideological, cultural, and religious – of Christians, Jews, and both Sunni and Shia Muslims pose challenges and threats which are no closer to resolution in the twenty-first century than they were at the end of antiquity.

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