A Seventh Century War on Terror

“What is there now, I ask of delight in this world? Everywhere we observe strife; fields are depopulated, the land has returned to solitude. And yet the blows of Divine justice have no end, because among the blows those guilty of evil acts are not corrected.”[1]

These are the words of Pope Gregory the Great (c. 594) who was a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). He was clearly wishing for divine justice to emerge in order to correct the evildoers i.e. the Lombard tyrants in this case. The Divine intervention was at hand:

And We have sent you (O Muhammad [peace be upon him]) not but as a mercy to mankind”[2]

And mercy he was. The Messenger of Allah received the above revelation not long after the disturbing plea of the Pope and this revelation was a signal for the Prophet to initiate a war against terror and tyranny. Islam emerged as a power and in a very short period of time took over large portions of land from the surrounding establishments. Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE and exactly a century later in 732 CE the Muslims had reached as far as Southern France and Northern China. This was the largest and the fastest expansion the world had ever known and it was made possible only by the justice and mercy the Muslims had to offer, as will be amply demonstrated in the following paragraphs.

It may be puzzling to some who may question how the Muslims were able to conquer such a large portion of land so rapidly without much difficulty? A Muslim believer would give an easy and simple answer to this question by quoting the Qur’an:

Allah has promised those among you who believe and do righteous good deeds, that he will certainly grant them succession (to the present rulers) in the land, as He granted it to those before them, and that He will grant them authority to practise their religion which he has chosen for them(Islam).”[3]

History testifies that this is precisely what occurred and here one must note that the Arabs, at the time, were the least able people to achieve this, primarily, due to the lack of military equipment and resources. Carole Hillenbrand, a leading Arabist/historian from the University of Edinburgh, confirms this:

Much ink has been spilt on the phenomenon of the Islamic conquest, but few firm conclusions can be drawn. It seems unlikely that the Arabs possessed military superiority over their opponents. Certainly, they had no secret weapon, no new techniques. Indeed, in some military spheres they were inexperienced; they allegedly learned siege warfare, for example, from the Persians. They were also unfamiliar with how to fight naval engagements.”[4]

Even the contemporary Christian writers could not offer a reasonable explanation and attributed this rapid expansion of the Islamic governance to Divine intervention. John Bar Penkaye (690 CE), a contemporary of the early Islamic conquest, had this to say:

We should not think of the advent (of the children of Hagar) as something ordinary, but as due to divine working. Before calling them, (God) had prepared them beforehand to hold Christians in honour; thus they also had a special commandment from God concerning our monastic station, that they should hold it in honour. Now when these people came, at God’s command, and took over as it were both kingdoms, not with any war or battle, but in a menial fashion, such as when a brand is rescued out of the fire, not using weapons of war or human means, God put victory into their hands in such a way that the words written them might be fulfilled, namely, One man chased a thousand and two routed ten thousand. How otherwise, could naked men, riding without armour or shield, have been able to win, apart from divine aid, God having called them from the ends of the earth so as to destroy, by them a sinful kingdom and to bring low, through them, the proud spirit of the Persians.”[5]

Byzantines and the Persians were utterly uprooted by these ill-equipped nomads. European scholarship is still perplexed about the causes that led to the early Islamic conquest. To a sceptical historian or a conditioned rationalist, Divine intervention could never be entertained as a logical or even a scientific hypothesis. Such people require a historical justification, which is based upon political and socio-economic factors.

Tolerance or Terror:

In light of this there is a very reasonable explanation: The Muslims, when expanding, treated the non-Muslim inhabitants of vanquished nations with a previously uncharted level of tolerance, which in consequence encouraged the non-Muslim societies to embrace the approaching armies with open arms. Professor Thomas Walker Arnold gives an interesting account of such an occurrence. He states:

When the Muslim army reached the valley of the Jordan and Abu Ubaydah pitched his camp at Fihl, the Christian inhabitants of the country wrote to the Arabs, saying: “O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith, because you keep better faith with us and are more merciful to us and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and our homes. The people of Emessa closed the gates of their city against the army of Heraclius and told the Muslims that they preferred their government and justice to the injustice and oppression of the Greeks. The fear of religious compulsion on the part of the heretical emperor made the promise of Muslim toleration appear more attractive than the connection with the Roman Empire and a Christian government.”[6]

Perhaps, it was these facts, which persuaded Thomas Arnold to conclude:

Of forced conversion or anything like persecution in the early days of the Arab conquest, we hear nothing. Indeed, it was probably in a great measure their tolerant attitude towards the Christian religion that facilitated their rapid acquisition of the country.”[7]

So the Muslims were in fact seen as liberators from the Roman/Byzantine tyranny. As far as the Syrian Christians were concerned, the Muslims were carrying out a noble war on terror.

Syria rescued from the Byzantine terror:

Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, a Jacobite (or a Syrian Orthodox Christian) patriarch from 818 to 845 CE, also gave some reasons of this preference of the Muslims over Romans by the people of Syria. He stated in his chronicle, which covers the period from 582 to 842 CE, that Heraclius mustered 300,000 troops from Armenia, Syria and the Roman heartlands to expel the Muslims out of Syria. Muslims decided to withdraw to reform their war strategy. However, whilst withdrawing, the Muslims decided, out of fairness, to refund the money, which they had taken as tribute from the Syrian Christians to protect them from any form of oppression:

Abu Ubaydah, whom Umar had put in command of the Arabs, ordered Habib b. Maslama to return to the Emesenes the tribute which he had exacted from them with this message: We are both bound by our mutual oaths. Now we are going to do battle with the Romans. If we return, this tribute is ours; but if we are defeated and do not return, we are absolved of our oaths. So they left Emessa for Damascus; and the emir Abu Ubaydah ordered Saeed b. Kulthum to return the tribute to the Damascenes likewise. To them he said: If we return victorious we shall take it back. But if we are defeated and prove powerless to save you from the Romans, here is your tribute, keep it. We for our part shall be absolved of the oaths which we have sworn to you.”[8]

One must note that this was taking place in 7th century Syria where plunder, robbery and injustice were a common occurrence and what is mentioned above is quoted from a mid 9th century Christian source (which testifies that the Muslims did not abuse power and they did not betray the trust Christians bestowed upon them). Thomas Arnold adds, from an Islamic source (Abu Yusuf, Kitabul Khiraj [The Book of Taxes]), that:

“In accordance with this order, enormous sums were paid back out of the state treasury, and the Christians called down blessings on the heads of the Muslims, saying, May God give you rule over us again and make you victorious over the Romans; had it been they, they would not have given us back anything, but would have taken all that remained with us.”[9]

It would be fair to assert here that those Muslims acted in accordance with the teachings of the Qur’an:

Verily, Allah commands that you should render back the trusts to those, to whom they are due; and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice. Verily, how excellent is the teaching, which He gives you! Truly, Allah is ever all- Hearer, all-Seer.”[10]

Dionysius of Tel-Mahre confirms the accuracy of Abu Yusuf:

So the Arabs left Damascus and pitched camp by the river Yarmuk. As the Romans marched towards the Arab camp every city and village on their way which had surrendered to the Arabs shouted threats at them. As for crimes the Romans committed on their passage, they are unspeakable, and their unseemliness ought not even to be brought to mind. The Arabs returned, elated with their great victory, to Damascus; and the Damascenes greeted them outside the city and welcomed them joyfully in, and all treaties and assurances were reaffirmed.”[11]

It is very clear from Dionysius’s testimony that the Romans were extremely oppressive towards the non-Chalcedonian Christian population of Syria, which caused this population to prefer the Muslim tolerance over the Byzantine terror. Muslims, in most, cases treated the minor Christian sects of Syria with maximum justice and sympathy, which enabled all parties to live in peace for the first time for a long time. For most of the Jacobite and Nestorian Christians in Syria, Muslim arrival was a God sent retribution against the Byzantine terrorist establishment.

Egypt saved from the Chalcedonian persecution:

The same seems to have taken place in Egypt where, according to Dionysius, the Coptic Patriarch submitted Egypt voluntarily to the Muslims:

We have found in the tales and stories of Egyptians that Benjamin, the Patriarch of the Orthodox in Egypt at the time, delivered the country to the Arab general Amr b. al-As out of antipathy, that is enmity, towards Cyrus, the Chalcedonian (Byzantine) Patriarch in Egypt.”[12]

This enmity, however, was due to the persecution of the Orthodox Church in Egypt at the hands of the Byzantine Church. John of Nikiou (690 CE), who was a Coptic bishop in Nikiu (Egypt), confirmed the testimony of Dionysius:

When Muslims saw the weakness of the Romans and the hostility of the people to the emperor Heraclius because of the persecution wherewith he had visited all the land of Egypt in regard to the orthodox faith at the instigation of Cyrus the Chalcedonian Patriarch [in office 631/2-41], they became bolder and stronger in the war…And people began to help the Muslims.”[13]

And in some cases the Egyptians refused to fight the Muslims at all [14]. One must keep in mind that these are contemporary Christian sources testifying that the Muslims were actually being helped by the Egyptian Orthodox Coptic Christians to put the Chalcedonian Byzantine Christian persecution to rest. Alfred J. Butler, a leading authority on the history of Egypt, believed that the Muslim arrival benefited both Christian factions by enabling them to live in peace together under the Islamic protection:

“After all that the Copts had suffered at the hands of the Romans and the Patriarch Cyrus, it would not have been unnatural if they had desired to retaliate upon the Melkites [the Romans]. But any such design, if they cherished it, was sternly discountenanced by Amr, [the Muslim conqueror of Egypt] whose government was wisely tolerant but perfectly impartial between the two forms of religion. Many facts might be cited in proof of this contention. So that the two forms of Christianity must be imagined as subsisting side by side under the equal protection of the conquerors.”[15]

It is evident from the testimonies cited above that the Muslims came as a mercy for the wider Egyptian population. The Coptic Christians in Egypt were also a target for the Byzantine terror and it was this terror which caused the Copts to join the Muslims against their co-religionists. Amr bin al-Aas (may Allah be pleased with him) had established a peaceful abode for all parties and this he did by implementing the Shariah Law in Egypt. Thus the real operation “Enduring Freedom” was accomplished successfully in the land of Pharaohs.

Spain liberated from the Visigothic tyranny:

Muslims landed in Spain in 711 CE and many sources testify that they were welcomed by the population, as their reputation preceded them. This was due to the severe persecution afflicted upon certain communities by the Visigothic Kings. Under these kings’ rule (following their conversion to Catholicism from Arianism), the Jewish community, in particular, was severely oppressed. The Catholic hierarchy in Spain held many ecumenical councils to solve political and religious disputes and in these councils (many held in Toledo), severe edicts were issued against the Jews of Spain. One of the clauses in the text of the proceedings of the 4th Council of Toledo (633 CE) states,

We decree that the sons and daughters of the Jews should be separated from the company of their parents in order that they should not become further entangled in their deviation, and entrusted either to monasteries or to Christian, God fearing men and women, in order that they should learn from their way of life to venerate the faith and, educated on better things, progress in their morals as well as their faith.”[16]

Zion Zohar, an American Jewish historian, confirms the Jewish appreciation of the Muslim arrival in this way:

Thus, when Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar from North Africa in 711 CE and invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Jews welcomed them as liberators from Christian Persecution”. [17]

And what did this liberty bring for the Jews in the subsequent centuries? Was this liberty similar to the one the U.S government has delivered to the Iraqis, resulting in mass murder and abuse of prisoners, or was it a freedom that was deeply ingrained in Islamic values such as justice and tolerance? Zion Zohar has an answer:

Born during this era of Islamic rule, the famous Golden Age of Spanish Jewry (circa 900-1200) produced such luminaries as: statesman and diplomat Hasdai ibn Shaprut, vizier and army commander Shmuel ha-Nagid, poet-philosophers Solomon Ibn Gabriol and Judah Halevi, and at the apex of them all, Moses Ben Maimon, also known among the Spaniards as Maimonides [who is Known as the second Moses among the Jews].”[18]

Thus the Jews were treated with fairness and Justice in Islamic Spain unlike the rest of Europe and it was this fair treatment which produced the famous Golden Age for the House of Jacob, which they appreciate to this day.

Heinrich Graetz, a 19th century Jewish historian expressed similar sentiments regarding Muslims in Spain:

It was in these favourable circumstances that the Spanish Jews came under the rule of Mahometans, as whose allies they esteemed themselves the equals of their co-religionists in Babylonia and Persia. They were kindly treated, obtained religious liberty, of which they had so long been deprived, were permitted to exercise jurisdiction over their co-religionists, and were only obliged, like the conquered Christians, to pay poll tax (Dsimma)[19] Jewish Spain became the place of civilization and of spiritual activity- a garden of fragrant, joyous, and happy poetry, as well as the seat of earnest research and clear thought. Like the Arabian Christians (the Christians who lived amongst the Mahometans) the Jews made themselves acquainted with the language and literature of their conquerors, and often got precedence over them. But whilst Arabian Christians gave up their own individuality, forgot their own language- Gothic Latin- and could not even read the creeds, and were ashamed of Christianity, the Jews of Spain were so little affected through this contact with Arabs, that it only served to increase their love and enthusiasm for their mother tongue, their holy law, and their religion. Through favourable circumstances Jewish Spain was in a position at first to rival Babylonia, then to supersede it, and finally to maintain its superiority for nearly five hundred years.”[20]

In Islamic Spain, even the Christians preferred Islamic government (based upon Shariah Law) over that of the Franks. This assertion appears to be quite reasonable when the views of Reinhart Dozy, an authority on the early Islamic Spain, are taken into consideration:

“The unbounded tolerance of the Arabs must also be taken into account. In religious matters they put pressure on no man…Christians preferred their rule to that of the Franks.”[21]

Ulick R. Burke, a prominent historian specializing in the history of Spain, reached a similar conclusion:

Christians did not suffer in any way, on account of their religion, at the hands of Moors…not only perfect toleration but nominal equality was the rule of the Arabs in Spain.”[22]

This tolerance had an immense impact on the Christian population of Spain, many of them converted to Islam and those who did not adopted the Islamic culture in regards to literature and lifestyle. This is emphatically substantiated by the 9th century Spanish Christian writer, Paul Alvarus (who was writing in the 850s at Cordova):

The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their own language. For every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in his language then the Arabs themselves.”[23]

Most of the aforementioned opinions indicate that the Muslim arrival in Spain liberated the masses from a deep slumber of ignorance and oppression. Prior to the Islamic emergence, the Catholic Spanish establishment was known for persecuting the Jews and minor Christian sects. The Muslims changed all of that and what followed was the appearance of a true renaissance that enabled Jews, Muslims and Christians to live in peace for centuries. Maria Rosa Menocal, one of the authorities on medieval European literature, decided to title her work (which describes how the Abrahamic faiths co-existed peacefully during the Islamic era) the Ornament of the world[24]; the phrase was used by Hroswitha (a 10th century German nun) to describe Islamic Spain[25]. Thus, Islam came as a mercy for the people of Iberian Peninsula, who welcomed the new rulers as liberators for the tyranny of the Visigoths.

A 7th century War on Terror:

One may question as to why was it that the Muslims were invading these lands and removing the already existing governments from power? It must be recognized that most of the 7th/8th century powers were guilty of oppression against their own subjects. The Qur’an provides one of the reasons, which caused the early Muslims to intervene:

And what is wrong with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah, and for those weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will help.”[26]

The Muslims were thus charged to carry out a war on terror in order to liberate the weak and oppressed and they duly fulfilled the Qur’anic injunction (it has been substantiated above that the populations of some of the countries Muslims took were severely oppressed by their rulers and it was due to this reason that they welcomed the Muslims as liberators). However, in this 7th century war against terror there was no oil or re-construction/destruction contracts involved. An objective approach to the subject will lead to similar findings. Perhaps the views of the Nestorian Patriarch of Khurasan in the 7th century, Ishoyabh III, will help elucidate upon this more. He addressed a letter to Simeon, the Primate of Persia, where he wrote:

and the Arabs, to whom God at this time has given the empire of the world, behold, they are among you, as ye know well: and yet they attack not the Christian faith, but, on the contrary, they favour our religion, do honour to our priests and the saints of the Lord, and confer benefits on churches and monasteries.”[27]

Usually exploitation and plunder of resources follows an invasion, as can clearly be seen in the case of the colonial period and modern day Iraq (Iraq’s most precious Baghdad museum was plundered following the US invasion (2003) and the 7000 years history of Mesopotamian civilisation was lost). Did Muslims follow the same precedence? Adam Smith, the 18th century founding father of modern capitalism (whose portrait is illustrated on the back of the current £20 note), did not think so:

The ruin of the empire of the Romans, and, along with it the subversion of all law and order, which happened a few centuries afterwards, produced the entire neglect of that study of the connecting principles of nature, to which leisure and security can alone give occasion. After the fall of those great conquerors and the civilisers of mankind, the empire of the Caliphs seems to have been the first state under which the world enjoyed that degree of tranquillity, which the cultivation of the sciences requires. It was under the protection of those generous and magnificent princes, that the ancient philosophy and astronomy of the Greeks were restored and established in the East; that tranquillity, which their mild, just and religious government diffused over their vast empire, revived the curiosity of mankind, to inquire into the connecting principles of nature.”[28]

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was one of the most outstandingly intelligent economists of his time. His works such as The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations are thought to be among the cornerstones of Western literature. The latter work (which is the most popular work in the field of economics to this day) seems to be very much concerned with an inquiry into how certain nations acquire prosperity. Some of the ways of acquiring prosperity and scientific advancement, which he expressed in the aforementioned quote, are security, the sense of tranquillity and justice; and Adam Smith believed that the mild, just and religious government of the Muslim Caliphs (who governed with Shariah Law) revived the curiosity of mankind to attain all kind of benefits from nature. The critics and the so called modern reformers of Islam need to pay heed to Adam Smith’s words and see whether he was reasonable in his conclusion in this regard. If Islam enabled mankind to achieve a high level of prosperity in those days, it still contains the potential to repeat the same today. One has to observe, in the light of history and contemporary reports, whether the present war on terror really is a war on terror or the 7th century Islamic war on terror better qualifies to be called a war on terror. If one was to examine objectively, one will find the 7th century war on terror to be a better choice, as today we do not see any positive outcome of the so called 21st century war on terror” but in the 7th century Muslims weakened the Byzantine, Persian and Visigothic terror to replace it by what, in the case of Spain, Adam Smith describes as scientific enlightenment for Europe:

“The victorious arms of the Saracens [Latin synonym for a Muslim] carried into Spain the learning as well as the gallantry, of the East; and along with it, the tables of Almamon, and the Arabian translations of Ptolemy and Aristotle; and thus Europe received a second time, from Babylon, the rudiments of the sciences of the heavens. The writings of Ptolemy were translated from Arabic into Latin; and the Peripatetic philosophy was studied  in Averroes [Ibn Rushd] and Avicenna [Ibn Sina] with as much eagerness and as much submission to its doctrines in the West, as it had been in the East.”[29]

[1] Pope Gregory I quoted by Mohammad Farooq Kemal, The Crescent vs The Cross, Lahore, 1997, P. 7.
[2] The Quran, Surah AL-Anbiya 21, verse 107.
[3] The Quran, Surah an-Noor 24, verse 55.
[4] Carole Hillenbrand, Muhammad and the rise of Islam, The New Cambridge Medieval History, 2005, vol 1, p. 340.
[5] John Bar Penkaye, quoted by Walter E. Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquest, Cambirdge, 2000, p. 216.
[6] T. W. Arnold, Preaching of Islam, London, 1913, p. 55.
[7] Ibid, p. 132-4.
[8] Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, tr by Palmer, Liverpool, 1993, p. 156-7.
[9] T. W. Arnold, Preaching of Islam, London, 1913, p. 61.
[10] The Quran, Surah 4 An-Nisa, Verse 58.
[11] Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, tr by Palmer, Liverpool, 1993, p. 157.
[12] Ibid, p. 158
[13] John of Nikiou, quoted by Petra M. Sijpesteijn, Egypt in the Byzantine World, Cambridge, 2007, p. 442.
[14] Ibid, see footnote 28.
[15] Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, 1902, Oxford, p. 447-8.
[16] The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages, edited by Amnon Linder, New York, 1997, p.488.
[17] Zion Zohar, Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewry, New York, 2005, p. 8-9.
[18]  Ibid, p. 9.
[19] H. Graetz, History of the Jews, London, 1892, Vol 3, p. 112.
[20] Ibid, p. 220.
[21] Reinhart Dozy, A History of Muslims in Spain, 1861 (reprinted 1913, 2002), Delhi, p.235.
[22] Ulick R. Burke, A History of Spain, London, 1900, vol I, p. 129.
[23] Paul Alvarus quoted by Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the world, New York, 2003, p.66.
[24] Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the world, New York, 2003.
[25] Stanley Lane-Poole, The Moors in Spain, London, 1920, p. 144.
[26] The Quran, Surah An-Nisa 4, verse 75.
[27] Ishoyabh III quoted by T. W. Arnold, Preaching of Islam, London, 1913, p. 81-82.
[28] The Essays of Adam Smith, London, 1869, p. 353.
[29] Ibid, p. 354.

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Comments (2)

  1. How would you respond to the accusation that this is anachronistic. Times have changed and new solutions to world problems are required. The conditions are not the same.

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