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Islam's War Against the Crusaders
By W.B. Bartlett
The History PressCopyright © 2013 W.B. Bartlett,
All rights reserved.
The Coming of Islam
The rise of Muhammad and his faith
20 August 636 was a momentous day. Close by the River Yarmuk, to the south of Syria, two great armies continued to fight a tremendous battle as they had done for the past five days. One army represented the oldest surviving empire in the Western world: Byzantium, heir to Rome. Arrayed against it were the forces of the newest power on earth, Islam.
Beneath the searing heat of the Syrian skies, the two hosts braced themselves for a decisive last push. The Byzantine army, led by their commander Vahan, was 20,000 strong. This force was anchored on its right wing, composed of heavy infantry whose role was to forge an impenetrable shield wall. While the enemy smashed themselves to pieces in an attempt to pierce this, the left of the army would be the manoeuvrable arm, swinging round and pulverising the Muslims in a flank attack. Such, at least, was the theory.
The Muslim forces were nominally led by Abu 'Ubaida, though he had delegated operational command to Khalid Ibn al-Walid, a great warrior and lieutenant. Behind the bulk of their army were three large cavalry units with a further mounted reserve to the rear. There were also archers, many from Yemen. They were fresh from triumphs in Syria and their morale was sky-high. Those victories had been at the expense of Byzantium and the spirits of their opponents were consequently low. It was a battle between the old world and that of the new and, in the campaigns preceding this confrontation, the latter had had much the better of it.
The confrontation at Yarmuk was the culmination of a campaign in Syria that had sent shockwaves back to Constantinople. The first day of this battle had been preceded by the champions of either side facing each other in hand-to-hand combat. Soon after, Vahan had launched the attack, sending in infantry backed up by archers. A bitter exchange of close-quarter hacking and slashing followed, carrying on until sunset with neither side gaining an advantage.
As the next day broke, the Muslims were at prayer. They were unprepared when Vahan again went on the offensive. The Byzantines outnumbered their enemies and Vahan figured that a dawn attack would give him the triumph he craved. The tactics were not subtle – this was to be a battle of attrition. He meant to use his superior numbers to outflank the Muslims and crush them in a vice-like grip.
After several attacks the Muslims began to fall back and the Byzantines started to fight their way into their camp. Here they came up against an unexpected Muslim secret weapon. There were a number of women and other camp followers present and they castigated the Islamic warriors for retreating. Shamed by the admonitions of the supposedly gentler sex, the fleeing soldiers returned reinvigorated to the fray and forced the Byzantines back.
A similar thing happened on the left of the Muslim army where a 73-year-old man, Abu Sayfan, was also forced to retreat. As he turned and fled he was met by an even fiercer opponent than the Byzantine soldiers who were chasing him in the shape of his 50-year-old wife Hind. A massive figure in every sense of the word, she beat him with a tent pole until he faced about and charged back into the heat of battle, or at least returned to it as quickly as a 73-year-old was able. The poetry of Hind echoed in his ears as he did so, as she sang a song of encouragement which included the words 'if you attack we shall embrace you, and if you retreat we will forsake you with a loveless separation'.
By the end of the second day, the Muslims had managed to hold their own. For all the Byzantines' efforts, the sunset positions of the armies were much as they had been at sunrise. A similar pattern was repeated on the third day although the Byzantine attacks were focussed on the north flank of the Muslim army. Once more they forced their way into their enemies' camp where the Muslim women again encouraged their men to fight on. However, although the pattern of this day's attacks was similar, the level of losses sustained by the Muslims was starting to have a serious impact.
The fourth day would be decisive. It appeared as if Vahan held all the trump cards given the Muslim losses. However, the topography of the battlefield was about to play a decisive part. The terrain was fragmented by vast gorges, tears in the corrugated landscape, which hampered the progress of Vahan's armies. Vahan again launched the attack with Armenian troops leading the way. But on this occasion the Muslims launched a ferocious counter-attack and the previously solid Byzantine front started to fragment. The cavalry began to separate from the infantry with ultimately disastrous results.
As a gap emerged, it was widened by an observant Islamic cavalry commander, Zarrar, who harried his opponent ferociously. Allied with the Byzantines were some Arabs who now opted to change sides. The key to an orderly Byzantine retreat, should one be required, was a bridge over a wadi, a deep dried-up riverbed, guarded by some Arab troops. Demoralised by the way the battle had started to shift against the Byzantines they gave a poor account of themselves and the bridge was soon lost. The bulk of the Byzantine army was now trapped.
Elsewhere the Byzantines were still fighting hard. Their archers in particular were creating havoc in the ranks of the Muslim army, so many of whom were struck by the missiles that rained down on them that this became known as 'The Day of Lost Eyes'. In one part of this melee, a unit of the Muslim army was cut off and killed or seriously wounded to a man. For the third day running, the women in the Muslim camp played an important role in the battle, some of them apparently even fighting in the thick of the fray.
With the Muslim army still holding its own, despite the grievous pressure it had been under, the Byzantines' position had taken a significant turn for the worse. Vahan recognised as much when, on the fifth day of battle, he tried to negotiate with the Muslims. But they were having none of it, realising that they now held the upper hand. That fifth day saw little fighting. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties and stopped to draw breath and lick their wounds.
Now, on this sixth day, on that 20 August, the crunch had come. This was a decisive day in world history. A Byzantine triumph could have crushed the ascendant power of Islam almost at birth. A triumph for the Muslim warriors on the other hand could lead to the fall of Syria and possibly even the whole of the Byzantine Empire in its wake.
Fierce skirmishing marked the start of that day. During this, Gargis, leader of the Armenian troops in the Byzantine army, was slain. Sensing that victory was close, the Muslims threw themselves into the battle with renewed vigour. Tradition asserts that at this decisive moment a sandstorm blew up and many of the Byzantines were blinded as a result. The account is probably apocryphal but nevertheless, as the Muslims pushed forward their enemy began to panic.
Perceiving that the battle was lost, some of the Byzantine troops tried to surrender but, fired on by the heavy losses that they had sustained and now wished to avenge, the Muslim soldiers hacked most of them down. Others tried to flee, and the only way that they could do so in this broken terrain was to make their way gingerly down steep ravines while exuberant archers fired their arrows into their broken ranks and other soldiers hurled rocks down on them. Many of them found themselves above a deep gulley at the foot of which flowed the River Jordan. For some of these gravity was the enemy, for the slopes were too steep to descend, and they fell to their deaths in the revered waters (for Christ Himself had been baptised in them by John the Baptist) that lay far below.
Despite the defeat, thousands of the Byzantine troops did escape, some of whom tried to stop the ongoing Muslim advance into Syria and Palestine after the battle, though their efforts were in vain. Both sides had suffered in the battle: Abu Sufyan, like a number of his comrades, had lost an eye. Another Muslim warrior had lost part of a foot but had failed to notice in the heat of battle. He could be seen walking the field after the fight trying to find it.
On the Byzantine side, the fate of Vahan was unclear. Some say that he was lost in the battle but others that he made his way in its aftermath to the hallowed site of St Catherine's Monastery in the desert vastness of Sinai, at the foot of the mountain on which God had given Moses the Ten Commandments. Either way, he would not present details of the catastrophe to his emperor Heraclius in person, which was probably a wise move on his part.
The Middle East now lay naked before the advancing forces of Islam, marking another milestone in what was the amazing story of the rise of the new faith, even now barely 25 years old. In the year 610, a rich young Meccan merchant named Muhammad received a revelation. Mecca already had religious significance, for within the city was a sacred rock called the Ka'ba, 'the cube'. It was here that Isma'il, eldest son of Abraham, had set up his home when exiled by his father.
As a result of his vision, Muhammad developed a creed that incorporated much of what was fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity but took it on a number of steps. The rejection of some of the core beliefs of both religions inevitably put the new religion, Islam, at odds with them. But the relationship was ambivalent, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam shared much in common which led to Jews and Christians being treated as 'Peoples of the Book' by Muslims. They were in the main to be well treated by the Muslims though there would be some isolated periods of persecution when this did not hold true.
Islam preached that Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets who were sent into the world armed with the revelations of Allah. The line included Abraham, Moses and Jesus, hence the respect accorded to Judaism and Christianity. However, in Islam's eyes these other religions had become corrupted and Muhammad attempted to bring all peoples back to the true path. As regards Christianity, the major doctrinal differences revolved around the role of Christ who, although a holy prophet of much importance in Islam, is not regarded as a co-equal of Allah.
Members of the Muslim faith were, of course, expected to subscribe to certain items of doctrine. A belief in God naturally enough was paramount. However, adherents should also recognise the legitimacy of his prophets and his angels. In common with Christians, Muslims believed in a Day of Judgement when all those on earth would be judged and a place in paradise or otherwise set aside for them. Allah's guidance was set out in the holy book, the Qur'an.
The words of this revered tome were revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Although the verses in it were written down by the prophet's companions, they were believed to be his. Initial transmission of the verses, however, was through oral methods (Qur'an means 'recitation') and only later was it written out. It is divided into 114 chapters (suras) and has 6,236 verses. Translations of it are deemed to be inherently flawed as some of the meaning is lost in interpretation and therefore the only way to be sure of the truth of it is to read it in Arabic, which had important racial effects in the development of Islam.
The faith has a strict set of guidance: to Sunni Muslims these are known as the Five Pillars though Shi'a have eight ritual practices which generally overlap these five. The first of these is the shahadah. This is the most basic decree, outlined in the following statement: 'I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God' (often paraphrased as 'there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet'). All other beliefs in Islam flow from this one. So crucial is this tenet that it must be repeated when Muslims pray and those who wish to convert to the faith are required to repeat it as a token of submission.
The next Pillar is salah, the process of ritual prayer. This must be performed five times a day, though Shi'a Muslims, of whom more will be said shortly, are permitted to combine certain of these. When a Muslim prays, they are required to bow towards the Ka'ba in Mecca. Although we now associate the call to prayer, such a well known feature of the Muslim world, with a collective act of worship its main feature is one of personal communication between an individual and Allah.
The third tenet is zakat. This is the act of giving alms, an obligatory act for all those who can afford to do so. Part of the funds given are donated to help the needy, part to help in the spread of Islam. This particular Pillar flows from a belief that those who possess wealth have received it in trust from Allah and are required to spend some of it furthering his cause and those of his people. Although a fixed amount is given, Muslims are encouraged to give more than this voluntarily.
The next Pillar is that of sawm or fasting. This is best known for its practice during Ramadan. During this month Muslims must not eat between dawn and dusk. As well as abstaining from food during these times Muslims are encouraged to reflect on their relationship with Allah and think of those in need. Some flexibility is allowed in periods of extreme duress but this is strictly limited. This Pillar is an extension of Judaic beliefs such as the fast that precedes Passover.
The fifth Pillar is that of the hajj or pilgrimage. Every able-bodied Muslim with the means to do so is expected to visit Mecca on at least one occasion in their life. When they near the sacred city, they dress in simple clothing. On arriving in Mecca, they must walk seven times around the Ka'ba, touch the Black Stone and symbolically cast stones at the Devil.
Everyday life was to be governed by Islamic law, known as sharia which can literally be translated as 'the path leading to the watering place'. This legal frame-work covers everything from questions of state and foreign affairs to matters which concern individuals in their day-to-day existence such as laws concerning marriage and divorce. Although in the first instance the law emanated from the guidance of the Qur'an, other areas became important in the development of sharia, too, such as the words of the Prophet outside of the Qur'an – the Sunna – and legal precedents as decided by Muslim scholars (known as ulema).
The formulation of this complex set of beliefs took time. At first, Muhammad's following was not large. Those who took his part were initially members of his family, such as his wife, his cousin and his son-in-law Ali. Muhammad's uncle, Abu Talib, was a very influential man in the city and his protection proved vital, for there were many who were initially opposed to the doctrines that Muhammad was developing.
When Abu Talib died, many in Mecca turned on Muhammad, as a result of which he was forced to decamp from the city and flee to Medina. This event, which occurred in the year 622 in the Christian calendar, became known as the hijra or 'emigration'. This year became the first in the Muslim calendar, year one AH (Anno Hegirae). The calendar is based on lunar cycles of thirty years, nineteen of which are 354 days in length and eleven are leap years of 355. This means that a direct correlation between Christian and Muslim years simply by adding on 622 years does not work.
During his exile in Medina, Muhammad refined his beliefs. He and his followers did not themselves see Islam as a new creed but rather as the restoration of an original faith, the purity of which had been lost. As the last of the line of prophets that had been sent to preach the message of truth to the world, Muhammad thought intensely about Islam's relationships with Judaism and Christianity. At one stage he ordered that the direction of prayer should be towards Jerusalem but ultimately decided that Mecca should be the focus for such acts. But right from the beginning, Jerusalem had a special place in the hearts of Muslims.
Medina became the focal point of Muhammad's fight-back against Mecca. He built up support in Medina, and these new supporters allied themselves with Muhammad's entourage who had accompanied him from Mecca. In 624 he won a battle against Meccan forces at Badr. Further conflicts followed, some against Mecca, others against Jewish groups in the Arabian Peninsula. By 629 Mecca had fallen to him. Three years later most of the Arabian Peninsula was his too, but in that year he died.
Until now, the impact of Islam had been contained within the borders of Arabia. However, an astonishing surge of power had been released, generating an unstoppable force that threatened to overwhelm anything that stood in its path. The regions to the north were too busy fighting each other to take much notice of what was happening across the southern deserts. The Middle East was at the time carved up in two and the superpowers there were too occupied to notice the tremendous energy building up to their south.
The western part of the Middle East, Syria and Palestine and up into Asia Minor, was under the control of the Byzantine Empire, centuries old and the inheritor of much that was great in Rome (though confusingly, Westerners would call them Greeks, a reference to their language). The Byzantines had for years been at war with the other great ancient power in the region, Persia. Fortunes had ebbed and flowed, with first one side, then the other, gaining the upper hand. A few years before, the Persians had taken that holiest of cities, Jerusalem. A horrific sack followed but then the city was retaken by the Byzantines under the command of their emperor Heraclius.
Heraclius proved himself a very able emperor but he was thrown off guard when the forces of Islam burst over the borders of Syria. Thinking that his armies would be more than a match for these nomadic raiders, it came as a terrible shock when the city of Damascus was taken by them. It was this reverse that led to the counter-attack which ended in disaster on the banks of the Yarmuk.
Worse was to follow after Byzantium's defeat there. Jerusalem lay open before the all-conquering armies of Islam. Realising that it must fall, Heraclius took away all the sacred icons of Christianity that were housed there, including a precious fragment of the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified. When the city fell soon afterwards, its capture was not marked by any outbreak of bloodletting but was instead handed over in a dignified and peaceful manner once it was obvious it was lost.
Excerpted from Islam's War Against the Crusaders by W.B. Bartlett. Copyright © 2013 W.B. Bartlett,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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