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The Arab Conquests

BOTH THE BYZANTINES in their victory and the Persians in defeat lay exhausted when, in 633, the sounds of war were heard again. This time it was an Arab army, the followers of the new religion of Islam, whose prophet Mohammed had died the year before. The Byzantines did not feel greatly threatened, failing to recognise the approaching Bedouins as a significant military force. This story of conquest, one of the most far-reaching and rapid in history, had its beginnings in Arabia in 622, when Mohammed began to unite the Arab tribes into a powerful fighting force through his preaching of a single god. Despite being largely barren and uninhabited, Arabia occupied an important position between Egypt, Abyssinia, Persia, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia, whose trade with one another relied to some considerable extent on the Arab caravans that carried their goods across the perilous wastes. Mecca stood at an important crossroads of this desert trade, and the authority of the Arab nomadic tribal sheikhs was in some measure supplanted at Mecca by an oligarchy of ruling commercial families whose religious beliefs and practises transcended narrow tribal allegiances. The Meccans ensured that their rock-shrine, the Kaaba, contained not one but several venerated tribal stones, each symbolising a local god, so that tribesmen visiting the market fairs could worship their favourite deity during their stay in the city. The Meccans also worshipped Manat, Uzza and Allat, goddesses of fertility and fate, who in turn were subordinate to a yet higher god, called Allah.

Such material as we have about the early days of Islam comes mainly from the Koran and from the hadith, the traditions relating to the actions and sayings of Mohammed as recounted by his Companions. Born in about 570, Mohammed was the son of a poor merchant of Mecca who was nevertheless a member of the powerful Quraysh tribe, the hereditary guardians of the Kaaba. While working as a trader, he was exposed not only to the flow of foreign goods but also to the currents of Jewish and Christian ideas. In particular, through conversing with Jews and Christians he met in Mecca and elsewhere in Arabia, Mohammed had become acquainted with the stories of the Old and New Testaments, with the main elements of Jewish and Christian popular custom and belief, and above all with the concept of monotheism. Drawn into a life of religious contemplation, in about 610 he began to receive revelations via the angel Gabriel of the word of Allah, who announced himself to Mohammed as the one and only God. Other gods were mere inventions, announced the revelation, and their idols at the Kaaba were to be destroyed.

This message provoked a great deal of antagonism among the Meccans, but slowly Mohammed began making some converts among pilgrims from Yathrib, an agricultural community about 250 miles to the north which had a mixed population of Arabs, Jews and Judaised Arabs and was therefore already familiar with monotheism and other features of his teaching. In 622 the hostility of the pagan Meccans towards Mohammed reached such a pitch that he and his small band of followers were obliged to accept an invitation to settle in Yathrib. This migration, or Hegira, marked the beginning of the Muslim era, and in time Yathrib was renamed Medinat al-Nabi – ‘City of the Prophet’ – or Medina for short.

Mohammed’s understanding of Jewish and Christian concepts led him to believe that they were basically identical to the revelations, later gathered in the Koran, that he had received, and therefore he expected that Jews and Christians would agree with his teaching and recognise him as a prophet standing in the line of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and others. But whereas remnants of Arianism, a familiar Christian heresy which depreciated the divinity of Jesus, may have allowed Mohammed to believe that Christianity could dispense with the divinity of Jesus, the Jews were uncompromising: they told him that his revelations were a distortion and a misunderstanding of their tradition, and they drew attention to the numerous contradictions in his revelations on Old Testament themes.

Mohammed’s answer was to turn against the Jews, saying they had deliberately falsified their traditions, while he presented himself as the restorer of the religion of Abraham, who he said was the founder of the Kaaba and its cult. He abandoned the Muslim fast corresponding to Yom Kuppur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the High Priest at the Temple in Jerusalem entered the Holy of Holies where he made atonement for all the Jews in the world. In place of a day of fasting, Mohammed instituted the month-long fast of Ramadan. And at the same time, according to tradition, he instructed Muslims to pray towards the Kaaba in Mecca; until then he and his followers had prayed towards Jerusalem.

But one of Mohammed’s most important acts during his early years in Medina was to announce the revelation giving permission to his followers to go to war against those identified as their enemies. ‘Permission to take up arms’, goes the Koranic verse, ‘is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged. God has power to grant them victory: those who have been unjustly driven from their homes, only because they said: “Our Lord is God”.’1 According to Muslim scholars this concept of jihad, or holy war, can legitimately be applied against injustice and oppression, or against the rejectors of the truth – that is, the truth of Islam – after it has been made evident to them. In the immediate circumstances it was used against the Meccans. After provoking several clashes with the Meccans, including raids on their caravans, which provided the Muslims with considerable booty, Mohammed conquered Mecca in 629. Extending his wars against the Bedouin tribes, he gained control over much of Arabia the following year. But many tribes who allied themselves with Mohammed saw him as a war leader, not as a religious prophet, and at his death in 632 they thought of their alliance as dissolved. When Abu Bakir was made caliph – that is, successor to Mohammed (Khalifat Rasul Allah, Successor to the Apostle of God) – he went to war against these ‘apostates’, for he understood that Islam would survive only if the momentum of war was continued. And so what began as the wars of the Ridda, wars against apostasy among the tribes, soon broadened into a war of plunder and conquest beyond the Arabian peninsula, each triumph winning new followers and confirming the new faith.

Arabia’s limited natural resources presented a constant threat of poverty and hunger to its inhabitants and were a major factor in why the Arabs ‘erupted from the hot prison of the desert’.2 But material need alone would not have sustained the campaigns of conquest that followed. Religious fervour and the promise of Paradise for those who died in the course of making the supreme effort to go the way of Allah, which is the meaning of jihad, turned the Arabs into a united force, courageous and unafraid of death. Moreover, Islam gave the Arabs an imperialist ideology that demanded the submission of their enemies and justified Muslims as the ruling class. The first forays, under the caliph Abu Bakr (632–4), pushed up through the Syrian desert and into the lower reaches of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), to which the raiding Arabs were attracted by booty, ransom and abundant pasturage, while others penetrated into Palestine. Under his successor, the caliph Umar (634–44), Arab armies overran all of the Byzantine Middle East, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and won an important initial victory over the Persians, leaving the final destruction of Persia’s Sassanian Empire to Uthman (644–56), the third caliph. When the Persian king Yazdegerd III asked, ‘Why has your nation taken up arms against us?’, the Arab emissary had the answer: ‘Allah commanded us, by the mouth of His Prophet, to extend the dominion of Islam over all nations.’3

The Arab invasion began in February 634, Thomas the Presbyter recording ‘a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Mohammad in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled, leaving behind the patrician Bryrdn, whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region.’4 Then in July that year an Arab army 20,000-strong overwhelmed a Byzantine force half that size at the battle of Ajnadayn, 16 miles west of Jerusalem, leaving Palestine and Syria vulnerable to further advances.

Damascus was the first major Byzantine city to face the Arab onslaught. In March 635 a Muslim army arrived at the walls of the city, fell to its knees in prayer, then put the population under siege. After months of growing desperation within the city, the commander of its garrison, Thomas, the son-in-law of the emperor Heraclius, launched a counterattack. As he led his men out to battle, Thomas placed his hand on the Bible and called to God: ‘If our faith be true, aid us, and deliver us not into the hands of its enemies.’ The Muslim chroniclers to whom this account is owed recorded great feats of heroism on both sides. Many Muslim commanders were killed, but Thomas was shot through the eye with an arrow, the Christians were forced back within the walls, and Damascus fell a few days later (in 635 or 636, the sources giving various durations for the siege, from six months to over a year). Those Christians who wanted to leave the city were given three days’ safe passage, and among these were Thomas and his wife, the emperor’s daughter. The refugees made for the mountains of Lebanon, but after the third day they were hunted down and were slaughtered in the meadows. Thomas was struck to the ground, and his head was cut off and raised on the cross of a captured Byzantine standard. Only one Christian escaped to carry the news of the disaster to Constantinople, while Thomas’ wife, after being offered up to one of her captors, was instead released to a deputation from her father.5

These events were followed anxiously in Jerusalem, which by the summer of 636 was itself under siege. The Arabs began with an ultimatum:

        Health and happiness to every one that follows the right way! We require of you to testify that there is but one God, and that Mohammed is his apostle. If you refuse this, consent to pay tribute, and be under us forthwith. Otherwise I shall bring men against you who love death better than you do the drinking of wine or eating hogs flesh. Nor will I ever stir from you, if it please God, till I have destroyed those that fight for you, and made slaves of your children.6

But the ultimatum was refused.

The defence of Jerusalem was in the hands of a Byzantine garrison supported by armed units of local inhabitants and was organised by Sophronius, the city’s eighty-six-year-old Greek Orthodox patriarch. After sending the True Cross to Constantinople for safety, Sophronius did what he could to prevent Jerusalem suffering the same fate as Damascus, the city of his birth. But any hopes of relief were dashed when the Arabs, thanks largely to the agility of their fast-moving cavalry, won a decisive victory over the Byzantines in August 636 at the Yarmuk river, a tributary of the Jordan east of the Sea of Galilee; from that moment Jerusalem was entirely cut off from the outside world, while the Arabs ‘plunder cities, devastate fields, burn down villages, set on fire the holy churches, overturn the sacred monasteries’, as Sophronius told his congregation.7 Although sometimes described as ‘bloodless’, the Arab siege necessarily meant great suffering for Jerusalem’s inhabitants, some dying of starvation, others killed in defending the walls or making sorties against the encircling enemy. Finally, in the spring of 638, after Jerusalem had endured the siege for nearly two years, Sophronius was forced to surrender.8

There are several accounts of the fall of Jerusalem by Muslim writers, short on detail and contradictory, and all written at least a century after the event. But generally they speak of Jerusalem refusing to surrender to anyone other than the caliph, and so Umar rode up from the Muslim capital at Medina and received its capitulation on terms agreed with Sophronius. Provided the inhabitants paid the jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims, they were free to remain within the city, and the security of their lives, their property and their churches would be assured. Then Umar entered the city, not on horseback but more humbly on a camel, or according to another version he dismounted from his camel and entered on foot.

The caliph asked to be taken to the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple and powerful for its associations with the Jewish prophets, claimed by the Koran as forerunners of Islam.9 Since the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans the Mount had been left ruinous and abandoned and, according to some sources, had become a rubbish dump. The site meant little to the Christians, and to build a mosque there would avoid Umar’s undertaking not to interfere with Christian places of worship. Summoning his men to clear a space amidst the debris, Umar ordered the construction of a mosque, later described by the Gallic pilgrim Arculf, who visited Jerusalem in about 670: ‘In that renowned place where once the Temple had been magnificently constructed [. . .] the Saracens now frequent a four-sided house of prayer, which they have built rudely, constructing it by raising boards and great beams on some remains of ruins’10 – probably the remains of Herod’s Royal Stoa along the south retaining wall of the Temple area. The mosque was large enough, Arculf was told, to house three thousand men at once.

Umar’s greatest concern when building his mosque was that there should be no mistaking its direction of prayer. In this he was recalling that Mohammed had first prayed towards Jerusalem but had received a revelation that he should turn his back upon the city and pray instead to Mecca. This change of qibla, the direction of prayer, is mentioned in the Koran, where, after saying that fools will taunt believers for their sudden turnabout, the instruction is given to ‘Turn your face towards the Holy Mosque; wherever you be, turn your faces towards it’, the Holy Mosque being the mosque built round the Kaaba at Mecca.11 Umar followed this admonition on the Temple Mount, where he was emphatic about the position for his mosque: ‘We are not directed about the Rock’, he said, referring to the outcrop that was believed to mark the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple ‘but about the Kaaba’, speaking of Islam’s most sacred site in Mecca.12 Instead of placing his mosque somewhere at the northern part of the Temple Mount, where the qiblawould point towards both the rock and the Kaaba, he built his mosque at the southern end of the Mount so that it turned its back on Jerusalem and the site of Solomon’s Temple but had an unimpeded line of prayer to Mecca. For all the respect Umar paid to Jerusalem and its prophets, there was nothing in his acts which signified that the city or the Temple Mount or its rocky outcrop was holy to Muslims.

But Muslim attitudes would begin to change after a new dynasty of caliphs, the Umayyads, redeveloped the Temple Mount, building the Dome of the Rock and replacing Umar’s nameless mosque with the one that stands there to this day and is known as the Aqsa mosque – aqsa meaning ‘the furthest’, a name that would link the Temple Mount to the Night Journey of the Prophet Mohammed and would eventually transform Jerusalem into a Muslim holy place.

Meanwhile Palestine was organised into military districts, junds, which more or less followed the Byzantine provinces of Palestina Prima and Palestina Secunda. Jund Filastin (Palestine) extended from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea; at first its capital was at Ludd (Lod), later at Ramla, both cities inland from the Byzantine capital of Caesarea on the coast but on the overland trade route between Egypt and Damascus. Jund Urdunn (Jordan), centred on Galilee, extended eastwards beyond the Jordan river, and had its capital at Tiberias.

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