بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of Allah most Gracious most Merciful
Background of Ash-Sham in the 634 CE
We begin with a review of the political situation of Ash-Sham just before the Muslims conquered it during the year 634 CE. The region was contested by the two superpowers of the time: Byzantine Rome and the Sassanid Persians. The Byzantine-Sassanian war — which had only recently ended in 628 — was a brutal war, leaving both empires weakened and depleted. It was a pyrrhic victory for the Byzantines, with not much to show for their efforts.
The Prophet Muhammad صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم had recently passed away in 632 CE. Apostasy sprung up everywhere in the Arabian Peninsula, leading up to the Ridda Wars. Abu Bakar As-Siddeeq, the first Caliph of the Muslim nation managed to end the war and unite the Arabian Peninsula. He had sent Khalid b. Al-Waleed on a military campaign of Persia right after the wars. The bulk of the Persian army were conscripts, used to support the elite forces of Persia. This caused very high number of casualties reported in all wars against Persia.
The Byzantines on the other hand consisted mainly of trained forces. The Romans had a long military history and had the best heavy infantry and heavy cavalry in the world at the time. They were very educated in military strategy.
In almost every battle since the Hijra, the Muslims had been greatly outnumbered. The Muslim leaders and generals are used to fighting against superior numbers and had adapted their tactics as such. Khalid b. Al-Waleed’s skirmish tactics fared well against the heavily armored Roman forces. The Muslims had extremely high morale and bravery on the battlefield, as they expected to be paid with martyrdom, instead of wealth.
Motive of the Conquest of Ash-Sham
The Muslims had little need for wealth, power, and land. The war sparked partly because of their very poor relations with the Romans. The Prophet Muhammad had sent out letters to Heraclius, the Roman Emperor and Al-Haarith, the Roman viceroy over the Arabs in Ash-Sham, inviting them to Islam. Al-Haarith was overcome with pride and almost attacked the Prophet in Madeenah, but was commanded by Heraclius not to.
An ambassador of the Prophet, Al-Harith bin ‘Umair Al-Azdi was killed by Sharhabeel bin ‘Amr Al-Ghassani. An army was sent, but was defeated and retreated. Despite the defeat, it left a good impression that the Muslims were not afraid to stand up against the Romans.
The Romans posed a fearsome threat, and the Prophet considered going to war with them. Revelation was sent down in several parts of Sura At-Tawbah, and the Prophet Muhammad declared that the Muslims would go to war. Many of the Prophet’s companions donated almost everything they owned to prepare for the impeding war.
In the year 630 CE, the Prophet Muhammad marched to war with 30 thousand men. Their target was Tabouk. There was no battle at Tabouk, the Romans simply retreated out of the city when the Prophet Muhammad’s army arrived. This increased the momentum against Rome. Even on the day of the Prophet’s death, armies waged minor skirmishes against Byzantines, but no conquests.
Abu Bakr Considers Attacking the Romans
At the end of the Ridda Wars, Caliph Abu Bakr considered attacking the Romans. It was certainly a difficult decision, as the Romans were very threatening.
Shurahbeel ibn Hasanah, one of the military commanders during the Ridda Wars, told Caliph Abu Bakr of a dream he had:
“O Khaleefah of the Messenger of Allah, I indeed saw something, and by ‘saw’, I mean what a person sees when one is sleeping: It was as if you were walking among the people above a rough and uneven mountain-pass, and you continued to do so until you ascended to a very high peak. You overlooked the people, and you had with you your companions. Then you descended from those peaks and landed on a flat, soft part of the eart – one that had in it fields, villages, and fortresses. And you said to the Muslims, ‘Attack the enemy of Allah, and I will guarantee for you both victory and spoils.’ I am among them and I have with me a flag. I take the flag and head towards the people of the village, and they ask me for a guarantee of safety, and I grant it to them. Then I return and find that you have reached a huge fortress. Allah then grants you victory, and the people (inside of the fortress) surrender to you. Allah then provides you with a kind of chair, and you sit on it. Then someone says to you, ‘Allah bestows upon you victory, and help has come to you, so thank your Lord and be obedient to Him.’ The same person then recites [of Sura An-Nasr:1-3]: ‘When the victory of Allah has come and the conquest, And you see the people entering into the religion of Allah in multitudes, Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him. Indeed, He is ever Accepting of repentance.’
Abu Bakr then said:
“You have given me glad tidings of victory, and at the same time, you have given me news about my death. As for the rough mountain-pass that you saw us in, and from which I ascended to the high peak, from where I overlooked the people – it means that we will face many hardships and difficulties, and that the enemy will face many hardships and difficulties as well. Our being raised (to the peak of the mountain) signifies that we will be raised above our enemy and that our cause will prevail. In terms of us descending from the high mountain-pass and landing on earth that is flat and soft and that contains in it fields, springs, villages, and castles – all of that signifies that our agriculture and standard of living, our situation will become easier than it was before. And as for me saying to Muslims, ‘Attack the enemy of Allah for I will guarantee for you both victory and spoils’, this refers to when Muslims are in the territory of the polytheists. I will encourage them to perform Jihaad, and I will remind them about the rewards and spoils that will be distributed among them. As for the flag you had – that signifies that you will be one of the Muslim commanders and that Allah will grant victory at your hands. The fortress that Allah enabled me to conquer refers to those lands over which Allah will grant me victory. The person who was ordering me to obey Allah and reciting the chapter of the Quran, was in fact announcing my imminent death. When the same Chapter was revealed (to the Prophet), Allah announced to the Prophet his imminent death.”
Caliph Abu Bakr brought his advisors together and they unanimously agreed to attack the Romans, but in different ways. Umar wanted large waves of forces in Ash-Sham, Abdur Rahman wanted skirmishes and raids. Abu Bakr went with Umar’s way.
Abu Bakr’s Military Campaign on Ash-Sham
Abu Bakr sent out four armies in four waves, one after the other.
Word of this got to the Roman Emperor Heraclius. Heraclius ordered his troops to allow the Muslim armies easy victory to pull them further into Roman lands and trick the Muslims into becoming complacent. Once they were deep in their territory, he planned to ambush every army individually. Very large armies were dedicated to the task. For example, 90 thousand soldiers under the leadership of Theodore were dedicated to countering ‘Amr ibn Al- ‘Aas, who led about 6 thousand Muslim soldiers.
The Muslims learned of this plan and wrote to Caliph Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr told the Muslim armies to abandon their conquests and withdraw. They were to gather at a place outside the Roman borders, at Yarmouk. He requested volunteers from within the Arabian tribes and sent them out as reinforcements. Khalid Al-Waleed was pulled from his Persian campaign to Yarmouk, and had to cross one of the harshest deserts to make it there in time.
This withdrawal was the opposite of what Heraclius wanted. The Roman Emperor wanted to fight the Muslims on their grounds and he planned to defeat the armies one by one. One of the armies, led by ‘Amr was being chased by a superior force. Khalid Al-Waleed came to his aid, and with skirmish tactics, delayed the pursuing army. Muslim sources say that Theodore, brother of Heraclius was killed in this skirmish, but on the other hand Western sources say that he survived but later imprisoned in Constantinople.
Battle of Yarmouk
The Muslims pulled the Romans into a large decisive battle at Yarmouk. This battle has been noted as one of the most decisive battles in history, where a small army defeated a much larger army with superior training and equipment.
The Romans numbered about over 100 thousand. The Muslims numbered less than 40 thousand, and were led by Khalid b. al-Walid. The region was hilly and difficult to manuever in and the Romans stood with their backs to a river. A Roman commander, George, converted to Islam right before the battle started, but died the same day.
The battle went on for six days. For the first 5 days, the Muslims were on the defense. The Romans were unable to inflict much damage, and several Roman commanders were slain by Muslim swordsmen. Khalid was able to read many of their moves and outflank them effectively. The Romans made poor use of their cavalry, whereas Khalid did excellently with his.
On Day 6, Khalid pulled off an effective attack, destroying the Roman cavalry and forcing a retreat. The dangerous terrain caused many Romans to fall off cliffs or drown in their retreat. All in all, roughly 50 thousand Roman soldiers were killed and the Muslims lost only about 4 thousand soldiers.
Military Campaign Under ‘Umar
On the same day as the Battle of Yarmouk, Caliph Abu Bakr passed away. The news was only given to the forces after their victory, as to not lower their morale too early. ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab took the role of Caliph and removed Khalid b. Al-Waleed from the commander role, to be replaced with Abu Ubaidah. His justification for removing Khalid was that the Muslims might become too dependent on him for success and forget that success comes from Allah. However, Khalid remained to serve a role as advisor and warrior.
The remnants of the Byzantine army at Yarmouk battle fled to Damascus and Fahl (Pella). ‘Umar commanded that a siege be laid on Damascus and that a minor cavalry detachment be sent to Fahl. Damascus was a major fortress in Ash-Sham, considered the seat of the kingdom. It played a major role in the Byzantine-Sassanian war and was well defended. The Muslims were unable to breach the walls, but Khalid found an unguarded point where the moat of the fortress was most difficult to cross and climbed the walls there. Sources vary on what happened then, but some say that the Romans in Damascus immediately surrendered after they got into the walls.
Fahl held mostly demoralized Roman remnants from previous battles, but their numbers were about 100 thousand. The Romans flooded the area with sea water to impede the Arabian cavalry, who were used to fighting on dry ground. During the siege, the Romans tried to take advantage of their numbers and launch a pre-emptive night attack. Battle went on for a full day until a Roman commander was killed. The Romans had trouble withdrawing because of the flooded marshes and lost the battle.
The Muslims besieged and conquered several other cities, notably Homs, Qanessarin, Caesarea, and Antioch.
Conquest of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, the Holy City to so many religions, was perhaps the most strongly fortified city in Ash-Sham. Just two decades earlier, a war between Rome and Persia was waged over it. Its conquest and liberation was the goal of the Romans in that war. Just before the Muslims attacked it, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius moved Christian relics to Constantinople, including the True Cross.
The Muslims were unable to breach its thick walls, so they did a long siege lasting four months. Large garrisons were in place in Ramallah and Caesarea. Caliph ‘Umar dispatched other smaller armies to distract these garrisons. Caesarea was taken only much later.
Sources differ about the degree of fighting involved. Some, like Dr. `Ali Muhammad say that it involved a difficult battle with the Patriach’s armies outside the gates of Jerusalem, and daily attacks on the walls of Jerusalem. Others, like E. Gibbon, say that it was a bloodless siege.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem chose to only surrender to ‘Umar in person, and so ‘Umar came himself from Madinah.
The Covenant of ‘Umar
The terms placed upon Jerusalem were extremely lenient compared to what the previous owners of Jerusalem had demanded. The Romans had expelled the Jews from Judea and destroyed many temples in the first century CE. In 614 CE, the Persians had looted Jerusalem, destroyed churches, and killed tens of thousands of Christians.
‘Umar offered the following terms, among others:
- Full protection of the people of Jerusalem, their money, churches, children and other innocents.
- Their churches are not taken, not destroyed, and not to be degraded.
- Nobody is forced to change religion or is harmed.
- Jews are not to live with them in Jerusalem. However, the Jews are permitted to worship in Jerusalem again.
- The people of Jerusalem are to remove the Romans and other robbers from the land.
- The people of Jerusalem who do not wish to convert to Islam must pay Jizyah
- Whoever was present before the war can stay there and pay Jizyah
And such was how Ash-Sham and its cities came to be under Muslim rule. I end with a quote from page 685-686 of The Biography of Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq, by Dr. ‘Ali Muhammad, translated by Faisal Shafeeq. While I could not find a secondary citation to support this, it is a good reminder.
The news of the defeat at Yarmook was too much to bear for Haraql [Roman Emperor Heraclius]. When he was informed about the humiliating loss and the tens of thousands of Roman soldiers that had died, Haraql first was put into a state of shock, and then was overcome by extreme grief and sadness. A short while later, bands of Roman soldiers made their way back to Antaakiyyah. Wanting a first-hand account of what had gone wrong Haraql said to them, “Woe upon you! Inform me about the people who fought against you: are they not human beings like you?” They said, “Yes.” Haraql asked, “And did you not outnumber them?” They said, “Yes, in every battle we were many times more than them.” Haraql asked, “Then what was your problem? Why did you suffer defeat at their hands?” An old and wise leader among them was the only one who ventured a reply: “We were defeated because they stand up at night (to pray), they fast during the day, they fulfill their covenants, they enjoin good, they forbid evil, and they are just and fair among themselves; and because we drink alcohol, we perpetrate unlawful acts, we violate the terms of our covenants, we become angry and oppress others, we enjoin angry (and senseless acts of violence), we forbid the things that please Allah, and we spread corruption throughout the earth.” “You have answered me truthfully,” Haraql then said to him. Haraql appreciated the fact that, while no one else had the courage to speak their minds, the old, wise man answered him in a forthright, sincere, and judicious manner.