The Sword of Islam



MOHAMMED had appointed no successor to his power, but he had chosen Abu Bekr (573–624) to conduct the prayers in the Medina mosque; and after some turmoil and rivalry this mark of preference persuaded the Moslem leaders to elect Abu Bekr the first Caliph of Islam. Khalifa (“representative”) was at first a designation rather than a title; the official title was amir al-muminin, “Commander of the Faithful.” Ali, cousin and sonin-law of Mohammed, was disappointed by the choice, and for six months withheld allegiance. Abbas, uncle of both Ali and Mohammed, shared this resentment. From this inaugural disagreement came a dozen wars, an Abbasid dynasty, and a sectarian division that still agitates the Moslem world.

Abu Bekr was now fifty-nine; short, thin, and strong, with scanty hair, and white beard dyed red; simple and abstemious, kindly but resolute; attending personally to details of administration and judgment, and never resting till justice was done; serving without pay till his people overruled his austerity; and then, in his will, returning to the new state the stipends it had paid him. The tribes of Arabia mistook his modest manners for weakness of will; only superficially and reluctantly converted to Islam, they now ignored it, and refused to pay the tithes that Mohammed had laid upon them. When Abu Bekr insisted, they marched upon Medina. The Caliph improvised an army overnight, led it out before dawn, and routed the rebels (632). Khalid ibn al-Walid, the most brilliant and ruthless of Arab generals, was sent out to bring back the turbulent peninsula to orthodoxy, repentance, and tithes.

This internal dissension may have formed one of the many conditions that led to the Arab conquest of western Asia. No thought of so extended an enterprise seems to have occurred to the Moslem leaders at Abu Bekr’s accession. Some Arab tribes in Syria rejected Christianity and Byzantium, stood off the imperial armies, and asked for Moslem help. Abu Bekr sent them reinforcements, and encouraged anti-Byzantine sentiment in Arabia; here was an external issue that might weld internal unity. The Bedouins, tired of starvation and used to war, enlisted readily in these apparently limited campaigns; and before they realized it the skeptics of the desert were dying enthusiastically for Islam.

Many causes produced the Arab expansion. There were economic causes: the decline of orderly government in the century before Mohammed had allowed the irrigation system of Arabia to decay;1 the lowered yield of the soil menaced the growing population; hunger for arable land may have moved the Moslem regiments.2 Political causes operated: both Byzantium and Persia, exhausted by war and mutual devastation, were in a tempting decline; in their provinces taxation rose while administration lapsed and protection failed. Racial affinities played a part: Syria and Mesopotamia contained Arab tribes that found no difficulty in accepting first the rule, then the faith, of the Arab invaders. Religious considerations entered: Byzantine oppression of Monophysites, Nestorians, and other sects had alienated a large minority of the Syrian and Egyptian population, even some of the imperial garrisons. As the conquest proceeded, the role of religion mounted; the Moslem leaders were passionate disciples of Mohammed, prayed even more than they fought, and in time inspired their followers with a fanaticism that accepted death in a holy war as an open sesame to paradise. Morale factors were involved: Christian ethics and monasticism had reduced in the Near East that readiness for war which characterized Arab custom and Moslem teaching. The Arab troops were more rigorously disciplined and more ably led; they were inured to hardship and rewarded with spoils; they could fight on empty stomachs, and depended upon victory for their meals. But they were not barbarians. “Be just,” ran Abu Bekr’s proclamation; “be valiant; die rather than yield; be merciful; slay neither old men, nor women, nor children. Destroy no fruit trees, grain, or cattle. Keep your word, even to your enemies. Molest not those religious persons who live retired from the world, but compel the rest of mankind to become Moslems or pay us tribute. If they refuse these terms, slay them.”3 The choice given the enemy was not Islam or the sword; it was Islam or tribute or the sword. Finally, there were military causes of the invasion: as the triumphant Arab armies swelled with hungry or ambitious recruits, the problem arose of giving them new lands to conquer, if only to provide them with food and pay. The advance created its own momentum; each victory required another, until the Arab conquests—more rapid than the Roman, more lasting than the Mongol—summed up to the most amazing feat in military history.

Early in 633 Khalid, having “pacified” Arabia, was invited by a nomad frontier tribe to join it in raiding a neighboring community across the border in Iraq. Restless in idleness or peace, Khalid and 500 of his men accepted the invitation, and in conjunction with 2500 tribesmen invaded Persian soil. We do not know if this adventure had received the consent of Abu Bekr; apparently he accepted the results philosophically. Khalid captured Hira, and sent the Caliph enough booty to elicit from him the famous phrase: “Surely the womb is exhausted. Woman will no more bear a Khalid!”4 Woman had now become a substantial item in the thought and spoils of the victors. At the siege of Emesa a young Arab leader fired the zeal of his troops by describing the beauty of the Syrian girls. When Hira surrendered, Khalid stipulated that a lady, Kermat, should be given to an Arab soldier who claimed that Mohammed had promised her to him. The lady’s family mourned, but Kermat took the matter lightly. “The fool saw me in my youth,” she said, “and has forgotten that youth does not last forever.” The soldier, seeing her, agreed, and freed her for a little gold.5

Before Khalid could enjoy his victory at Hira a message came to him from the Caliph, sending him to the rescue of an Arab force threatened by an overwhelmingly superior Greek army near Damascus. Between Hira and Damascus lay five days’ march of waterless desert. Khalid gathered camels, and made them drink plentifully; en route the soldiers drew water from slain camels’ bellies, and fed their horses on camels’ milk. This commissary was exhausted when Khalid’s troops reached the main Arab army on the Yarmuk River sixty miles southwest of Damascus. There, say the Moslem historians, 40,000 (25,000?) Arabs defeated 240,000 (50,000?) Greeks in one of the innumerable decisive battles of history (634). The Emperor Heraclius had risked all Syria on one engagement; henceforth Syria was to be the base of a spreading Moslem empire.

While Khalid was leading his men to victory a dispatch informed him that Abu Bekr had died (634), and that the new caliph, Omar, wished him to yield his command to Abu Obeida; Khalid concealed the message till the battle was won. Omar (Umar Abu Hafsa ibn al-Khattab) (582–644) had been the chief adviser and support of Abu Bekr, and had earned such repute that no one protested when the dying Caliph named him as successor. Yet Omar was the very opposite of his friend: tall, broad-shouldered, and passionate; agreeing with him only in frugal simplicity, bald head, and dyed beard. Time and responsibility had matured him into a rare mixture of hot temper and cool judgment. Having beaten a Bedouin unjustly, he begged the Bedouin—in vain—to inflict an equal number of strokes upon him. He was a severe puritan, demanding strict virtue of every Moslem; he carried about with him a whip wherewith he beat any Mohammedan whom he caught infringing the Koranic code.6 Tradition reports that he scourged his son to death for repeated drunkenness.7 Moslem historians tell us that he owned but one shirt and one mantle, patched and repatched; that he lived on barley bread and dates, and drank nothing but water; that he slept on a bed of palm leaves, hardly better than a hair shirt; and that his sole concern was the propagation of the faith by letters and by arms. When a Persian satrap came to pay homage to Omar he found the conqueror of the East asleep among beggars on the steps of the Medina mosque.8 We cannot vouch for the truth of these tales.

Omar had deposed Khalid because the “Sword of God” had repeatedly tarnished his courage with cruelty. The invincible general took his demotion with something finer than bravery: he put himself unreservedly at the disposal of Abu Obeida, who had the wisdom to follow his advice in strategy and oppose his ferocity in victory. The Arabs, ever skillful horsemen, proved superior to the cavalry, as well as the infantry, of the Persians and the Greeks; nothing in early medieval armament could withstand their weird battle cries, their bewildering maneuvers, their speed; and they took care to choose level battle grounds favorable to the tactical movements of their mounts. In 635 Damascus was taken, in 636 Antioch, in 638 Jerusalem; by 640 all Syria was in Moslem hands; by 641 Persia and Egypt were conquered. The Patriarch Sophronius agreed to surrender Jerusalem if the Caliph would come in person to ratify the terms of capitulation. Omar consented, and traveled from Medina in stately simplicity, armed with a sack of corn, a bag of dates, a gourd of water, and a wooden dish. Khalid, Abu Obeida, and other leaders of the Arab army went out to welcome him. He was displeased by the finery of their raiment and the ornate trappings of their steeds; he flung a handful of gravel upon them, crying: “Begone! Is it thus attired that ye come out to meet me?” He received Sophronius with kindness and courtesy, imposed an easy tribute on the vanquished, and confirmed the Christians in the peaceful possession of all their shrines. Christian historians relate that he accompanied the Patriarch in a tour of Jerusalem. During his ten days’ stay he chose the site for the mosque that was to be known by his name. Then, learning that the people of Medina were fretting lest he make Jerusalem the citadel of Islam, he returned to his modest capital.

Once Syria and Persia were securely held, a wave of migration set in from Arabia to north and east, comparable to the migration of Germanic tribes into the conquered provinces of Rome. Women joined in the movement, but not in numbers adequate to Arab zeal; the conquering males rounded out their harems with Christian and Jewish concubines, and reckoned the children of such unions legitimate. By such industry and reckoning the “Arabs” in Syria and Persia were half a million by 644. Omar forbade the conquerors to buy or till land; he hoped that outside of Arabia they would remain a military caste, amply supported by the state, but vigorously preserving their martial qualities. His prohibitions were ignored after his death, and almost nullified by his generosity in life; he divided the spoils of victory eighty per cent to the army, twenty per cent to the nation. The minority of men, having the majority of brains, soon gathered in the majority of goods in this rapidly growing Arab wealth. The Quraish nobles built rich palaces in Mecca and Medina; Zobeir had palaces in several cities, with 1000 horses and 10,000 slaves; Abd-er-Rahman had 1000 camels, 10,000 sheep, 400,000 dinars ($1,912,000). Omar saw with sorrow the decline of his people into luxury.

A Persian slave struck him down while Omar led the prayers in the mosque (644). Unable to persuade Abd-er-Rahman to succeed him, the dying Caliph appointed six men to choose his successor. They named the weakest of their number, perhaps in the hope that they would rule him. Othman ibn Affan was an old man of kindly intent; he rebuilt and beautified the Medina mosque, and supported the generals who now spread Moslem arms to Herat and Kabul, Balkh and Tiflis, and through Asia Minor to the Black Sea. But it was his misfortune to be a loyal member of that aristocratic Umayyad clan which in early days had been among Mohammed’s proudest foes. The Umayyads flocked to Medina to enjoy the fruits of their relationship to the old Caliph. He could not refuse their importunity; soon a dozen lucrative offices warmed the hands of men who scorned the puritanism and simplicity of pious Moslems. Islam, relaxing in victory, divided into ferocious factions: “Refugees” from Mecca vs. “Helpers” from Medina; the ruling cities of Mecca and Medina vs. the fast-growing Moslem cities of Damascus, Kufa, and Basra; the Quraish aristocracy vs. the Bedouin democracy; the Prophet’s Hashimite clan led by Ali vs. the Umayyad clan led by Muawiya—son of Mohammed’s chief enemy Abu Sufyan, but now governor of Syria. In 654 a converted Jew began to preach a revolutionary doctrine at Basra: that Mohammed would return to life, that Ali was his only legitimate successor, that Othman was a usurper and his appointees a set of godless tyrants. Driven from Basra, the rebel went to Kufa; driven from Kufa, he fled to Egypt, where his preaching found passionate audience. Five hundred Egyptian Moslems made their way to Medina as pilgrims, and demanded Othman’s resignation. Refused, they blockaded him in his palace. Finally they stormed into his room and killed him as he sat reading the Koran (656).

The Umayyad leaders fled from Medina, and the Hashimite faction at last raised Ali to the caliphate. He had been in his youth a model of modest piety and energetic loyalty; he was now fifty-five, bald and stout, genial and charitable, meditative and reserved; he shrank from a drama in which religion had been displaced by politics, and devotion by intrigue. He was asked to punish Othman’s assassins, but delayed till they escaped. He called for the resignation of Othman’s appointees; most of them refused; instead of resigning, Muawiya exhibited in Damascus the bloody garments of Othman, and the fingers that Othman’s wife had lost in trying to shield him. The Quraish clan, dominated by the Umayyads, rallied to Muawiya; Zobeir and Talha, “Companions” of the Prophet, revolted against Ali, and laid rival claims to the caliphate. Aisha, proud widow of Mohammed, left Medina for Mecca, and joined in the revolt. When the Moslems of Basra declared for the rebels, Ali appealed to the veterans at Kufa, and promised to make Kufa his capital if they would come to his aid. They came; the two armies met at Khoraiba in southern Iraq in the Battle of the Camel—called so because Aisha commanded her troops from her camel seat. Zobeir and Talha were defeated and killed; Aisha was escorted with all courtesy to her home in Medina; and Ali transferred his government to Kufa, near the ancient Babylon.

But in Damascus Muawiya raised another rebel force. He was a man of the world, who privately put little stock in Mohammed’s revelation; religion seemed to him an economical substitute for policemen, but no aristocrat would let it interfere with his enjoyment of the world. In effect his war against Ali sought to restore the Quraish oligarchy to the power and leadership that had been taken from them by Mohammed. Ali’s reorganized forces met Muawiya’s army at Siffin on the Euphrates (657); Ali was prevailing when Muawiya’s general Amr ibn al-As raised copies of the Koran on the points of his soldiers’ lances, and demanded arbitration “according to the word of Allah”—presumably by rules laid down in the sacred book. Yielding to the insistence of his troops, Ali agreed; arbitrators were chosen, and were allowed six months to decide the issue, while the armies returned to their homes.

Part of Ali’s men now turned against him, and formed a separate army and sect as Khariji or Seceders; they argued that the caliph should be elected and removable by the people; some of them were religious anarchists who rejected all government except that of God;9 all of them denounced the worldliness and luxury of the new ruling classes in Islam. Ali tried to win them back by suasion, but failed; their piety became fanaticism, and issued in acts of disorder and violence; finally Ali declared war upon them and suppressed them. In due time the arbitrators agreed that both Ali and Muawiya should withdraw their claims to the caliphate. Ali’s representative announced the deposition of Ali; Amr, however, instead of making a similar withdrawal for Muawiya, proclaimed him Caliph. Amid this chaos a Kharijite came upon Ali near Kufa, and pierced his brain with a poisoned sword (661). The spot where Ali died became a holy place to the Shia sect, which worshiped him as the Wali or vicar of Allah, and made his grave a goal of pilgrimage as sacred as Mecca itself.

The Moslems of Iraq chose Ali’s son Hasan to succeed him; Muawiya marched upon Kufa; Hasan submitted, received a pension from Muawiya, retired to Mecca, married a hundred times, and died at forty-five (669), poisoned by the Caliph or a jealous wife. Muawiya received the reluctant allegiance of all Islam; but for his own security, and because Medina was now too far from the center of Moslem population and power, he made Damascus his capital. The Quraish aristocracy, through Abu Sufyan’s son, had won their war against Mohammed; the theocratic “republic” of the Successors became a secular hereditary monarchy. Semitic rule replaced the dominance of Persians and Greeks in western Asia, expelled from Asia a European control that had lasted a thousand years, and gave to the Near East, Egypt, and North Africa the form that in essence they would keep for thirteen centuries.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!