Confrontation with Byzantium and Persia

International background. When Islam appeared on the world stage, the then world was dominated by two powers, Byzantium in the east and Persia in the west. There were spells of war as well as peace between these two years. During the sixth century, Justinian (507-565 C.E.) was the emperor of Byzantium, while Anaushirwan (531-579 C.E.) was the emperor of Persia. Both of them were contemporaries and great rulers of all world fame. In Byzantium, Justinian was succeeded by Maurice, and in Persia, Anaushirwan was succeeded by Khusro Perwez (Chosroes II).
Chosroes II was overthrown in a military coup in 590, and he had to seek refuge with Maurice, the Byzantine emperor. With the Byzantine help, Chosroes II was restored to the Persian throne. Maurice regarded Khusro as a son, and during the last decade of the sixth century the two countries forged strong links of friendship. In 602 C.E., there was a revolt against Maurice. Maurice was killed, and Phocas became the emperor.

There was another revolt in 610 C.E. when Heraclius became the Byzantine emperor. After the death of Maurice, the friendship between the two countries was over. In the second decade of the seventh century, Chosroes II invaded the Byzantine territories. Syria and Jerusalem fell to the Persians in 614 C.E. The Persians carried away the Holy Cross from Jerusalem. The Persians next marched to Egypt and annexed it in 616 C.E. For some time, the Byzantines lay low, but by 622 C.E. the Byzantines were strong enough to launch an attack against Persia. In the battle of Issus in 622 C.E., the Persians suffered a defeat. Other battles were fought during 623-625 C.E, which were not conclusive. The decisive battle was fought on the banks of the Tigris near the city of Mosul in 625 C.E.

when Persia surrendered and asked for terms. As a result of this reverse, there was a revolt against Chosroes II in 628 C.E., when he was killed by his own son Sheroyah. Sheroyah who ascended the Persian throne as Kobad II made peace with Heraclius. By the terms of the peace treaty Persia abandoned all the conquests that it had made earlier in the second decade of the seventh century. Sheroyah died within a year. After him there was complete anarchy in the Sassanian empire, and during the next four years, there were a dozen kings including, two women. The Byzantine Empire on the other hand enjoyed a measure of stability under Heraclius.

Arab buffer states. When the two empires of Persia and Byzantium expanded, these came to include territories populated by Arabs. As a matter of policy both the empires found it expedient to set up Arab buffer states at the periphery of their empires. In the sixth century, a Ghassanid Arab state was set up in Syria under Al Harith b Jabala. This state acknowledged the suzerainty of Byzantium. In the Persian Empire a Lakhmid state was set up in Iraq with the capital at Hira. The Lakhmids acknowledged the suzerainty of Persia. The Ghassanids and the Lakhmids were often at war with each other. When Islam appeared on the world stage, the position about these buffer Arab states was changed. In Syria after the death of their king Al Harith b Jabala the Ghassanid State split into fifteen principalities.

In Persia Chosroes II did away with the Lakhmid State, and took over the territory under the direct rule of Persia. The policy of the Holy Prophet was to win over the border Arab tribes to Islam. It was with a view to this end that the campaigns of Muta and Tabuk were undertaken during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet. When Abu Bakr insisted on sending Usama’s expedition to Syria, it was in continuation of the policy laid down by the Holy Prophet. With the disintegration of the Persian rule, there was a power vacuum in the coastal areas of east and south Arabia. Islam succeeded in filling up this vacuum. In Iraq, Islam had yet to make headway.

Campaigns of Abu Bakr. When Abu Bakr became the Caliph in 632 C.E., Islam was threatened with disintegration. Within a year, Abu Bakr was strong enough to attack the Persian Empire on the northeast and the Byzantine Empire in the northwest. These were giant empires with history extending over hundreds of years. They had large resources at their disposal. But yet against the Arab hordes the Persian and the Byzantine forces were not able to take a stand. In Iraq the Muslim forces gave blows after blows to the Persian armies.

In Syria the same story was repeated and the Byzantine forces in spite of the superiority in strength and vastness of resources could not withstand the Muslim forces. The story of the victory of the Muslim armies in Iraq and Syria read very much like a tale of the Arabian Nights, too difficult to believe, but yet an established fact of history. In this respect, Professor Hitti observes as follows in his History of the Arabs: “If someone in the first third of the seventh Christian century had the audacity to prophesy that within a decade some unheralded, unforeseen power from the hitherto barbarians and little known land of Arabia was to make its appearance, hurl itself against the only two powers of the age, fall heir to the one-the Sassanids, and strip the other, the Byzantine of its fairest provinces, he would undoubtedly be declared a lunatic. Yet that was what happened.”

Causes of Muslim success. How the Muslims were able to overpower the gigantic empires of Persia and Byzantium is one of the great mysteries of history. Various western writers have tried to discover in their own way the causes of the astounding success of the Muslims. They have referred to four main causes, namely racial, political, economic and moral.

Racial affinity. Von Kremer has observed as follows in his book The Orient under Caliphs: “Instead of fighting their powerful kinsmen, the people of the frontier towns who were in the play either of the Byzantine or the Persian empire found it much more to their advantage to make common cause with the Arabs. It was thus that a comparatively smaller army which penetrated Syria and Iraq quickly grew like an avalanche, and crushed down all obstacles that stood in its way.”
In his book, The age of Faith, Will Durant has held that the racial factor was an important cause of the success of the Muslims, as both Syria and Iraq contained Arab tribes who had much in common with the Muslims.

In their book, World History, Flenley and Welch have held that the racial affinity of the people made the extension of the Muslim rule easier.
When Abu Bakr undertook campaigns in Iraq and Syria, these campaigns were really not directed against the Byzantine or Persian empires; these were really directed to bring the Arabs living in Iraq and Syria to the fold of Islam. In the wars in Iraq and Syria many Christian Arabs fought against the Muslims, but many of them sided with the Muslims as well. We can thus concede that in the success of the Muslim arms in Iraq and Syria, Arab nationalism played its part.
Political cause. Will Durant has held, in his book The Age of Faith, the political cause of the success of the Muslims was that both Byzantium and Persia exhausted by war and mutual devastation were in a state of decline.

In his book The History of the World H. G. Wells has observed as follows: “It (Islam) prevailed because every where it found politically apathetic people, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated and unorganized and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with the people.” In their World History, Flenley and Weleh have also held that the political cause of the success of Muslims was that the Persian and Byzantine empires stood exhausted by mutual wars.

This analysis of the political situation is basically correct, and we can very well hold that when Islam appeared on the scene, these old empires were in the process of decline.

Economic causes. In his book The History of Syria, Professor P. K. Hitti has expressed the following views with regard to the economic causes about the success of the Muslims in Iraq and Syria: viewed in its proper perspective the Islamic expansion was one in a series of migration waves carrying a surplus population from a barren peninsula to a border fertile region with a more abundant life. It was in fact the last stage in the age long process of infitration which had begun with the Babylonians some four thousand years before the Islamic movement.

The Islamic movement, however, did possess one distinctive feature-the religious impulse. Combined with the economic factor this made the movement irresistible and carried it far beyond the confines of any preceding one. Islam admittedly provided a battle cry, a slogan comparable to that provided by democracy as a cohesive agency cementing tribes and heterogeneous masses never united before. But while the desire to spread the new faith or to go to paradise may have been the motivating force in the lives of some of the Bedouin warrior, the desire for the comforts and luxuries of settled life in the fertile Crescent was the driving force in the case of many of them.”

The analysis of Professor Hitti is at the most partially correct. In the context of the events that led to campaigns in Iraq and Syria, there is nothing to show that such campaigns were undertaken because of any economic considerations. As a matter of fact economic considerations were a consequence and not a cause of the wars in Iraq and Syria.

Religious and moral causes. About the religious cause, Will Durant observes as follows in his book The Age of Faith: “The Muslim leaders were passionate disciples of Muhammad; prayed even more than they fought, and in time inspired with a fanaticism that accepted death in a holy war as an open sesame to paradise.”

About the moral factors, Will Durant observes as follows in his aforesaid book: “Christian ethics and monasticism had reduced in the Near East that readiness for war which characterized Arab custom and Muslim teaching The Arab troops were more rigorously disciplined and more ably led; they were used to hardships and could fight on empty stomachs.”

In their World History, Flenley and Welch have observed that new religion Islam provided the necessary unity, leadership and driving force for the Arabian expansion. They also hold that the Arabs were brave and determined fighters, and were more mobile than the Persians or the Byzantines.

Whether Islam was spread through sword. Some western writers have taken pains to build up the thesis that Islam was spread at the point of sword. It is preposterous to hold that the Muslims won in Iraq and Syria because of their military strength. In the matter of military power and material resources the Arabs could never be a match for the empires of Byzantium and Syria with sophisticated military power and great economic resources.

Under these circumstances there was no question of a great power asserting its faith backed by military strength. Islam was on the other hand a revolt against power; a militarily weak people contended against mightier people, and surprisingly enough they won. In the conquered territories the Muslims did not insist on the people becoming Muslims. They were allowed to follow their religion subject to the payment of ‘Jizya’. As such there is absolutely no weight in the argument that Islam was at any stage spread through sword.

Fulfillment of history. Whatever the causes that led to the success of the Muslims when they emerged on the international horizon, so much is certain that the astounding success of the Muslim forces in Iraq and Syria reads very much like a tale from the Arabian Nights.

Truth is said to be stranger then fiction, and it was certainly so in the case of the Muslim conquests of Iraq and Syria. It appears that the Muslims were merely an instrument for the fulfillment of history. Iraq and Syria fell to the Muslims just as a ripe apple would fall to the ground under the law of gravitation. It is an undeniable fact that by overpowering the empires of Persia and Byzantium, Abu Bakr changed the course of history. The story of Abu Bakr is the story of faith that moved mountains.