Abu Bakr  (632-634)

It would be a great mistake to suppose that Islam made its way into men’s minds by the attractiveness of its doctrine. Even, in Arabia, Muhammad’s own country, it mainly gained converts by violence. In all countries, nations in subjection to an alien power, as in Egypt, North Africa and Spain, anxious to change masters in the hope of bettering their condition, received Islam at first as an instrument of liberation but as soon after experiencing their first experiences of Islam they revolted. But it was too late. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was a man of simple manners and despite his unexpected elevation lived in poverty. When he died, he left behind him a worn out garment, one slave and one camel. He had one great quality – energy. This old man of good natured aspect, took his stand in the midst of the general insurrection against the payment of taxes to Mecca that occurred after Muhammad’s death.

After the death of Muhammad many tribes rebelled against the new Islamic ideology and were unhappy about paying taxes. Firstly, two tribes revolted so the Caliph sent forces under the command of Khalid to get them to re-submit. He defeated them at the well of Buzakha. Two more tribes rebelled and again Khalid was despatched, this time he defeated Bani Hanifah who had rebelled under the leadership of Musailimah who claimed to be a prophet, then he defeated an uprising under the leadership of Sajah, a woman of the tribe of Bani Tami, who had married Musailamah. After this battle no other tribe revolted.

The tribes were compelled to return to Islam not because they were convinced of the truth of Islam for they reverted back to Islam not because of piety nor faith but pressure. Abu Bakr had no illusions as to the quality of the new converts, nor as to their real sentiments. He realised  it was expedient to quickly enrol them in the Muslim army sending them to Syria and Iraq in the pursuit of booty.

We generally form a false conception of the Muslim campaigns, for their armies were more of the nature of a horde rather than regularly ordered troops. Theirs was not an army dominated by a superhuman faith and courting death with a fanatical joy in the hope of gaining Paradise. There were of course exceptions amongst some of Muhammad’s Companions who were animated by sincere convictions but for the rest there was one objective – booty. These men of the desert, accustomed to the hardest privations, and to modest profits to be had from robbing caravans, became enthusiastic followers of Islam when once the intoxicating delights of devastated provinces came to the fore.

After the Arab tribes had been subdued once more, Abu Bakr awarded Khalid with the title of Saif-Allah ‘the Sword of God’; he then sent Khalid to fight the Persians.  Iraq, was then under the control of the Persian Sassanides. The population who were peaceable and hard working lived entirely by agriculture, they had made good advances in the science of irrigation. The orchards of fruit trees, the verdant gardens intersected by irrigation channels, amid the thriving villages, all seemed to the Muslims like a paradise.

They made fierce resistance and held on to their Zoroastrian religion but in the face of Khalid’s terrorising of burnings, rape and murder they resigned themselves to conform to Islam and thereby save their property.

As soon as Iraq was quiet Abu Bakr sent three small independent armies to Syria but they were not competent enough to defeat the large Roman army sent against them. The Caliph therefore ordered Khalid to assume the Syrian command, quickly crossing the desert he encountered the Byzantine army by surprise and after a six months siege took Damascus in A.H 14 (635).

Syria had been rejoicing over recent military successes over the Persians. They were devoted to a life of pleasure giving themselves over to philosophical and religious discussions. There was verbal strife between Christian groups, the principle ones being the Catholics and the Monothelites.  Syria was abominably pillaged. For the first time Muslims were fighting a Christian community, and one would have expected that they would have shown some moderation to those whom the Prophet had recognised as the ’People of the Book’ and whom he had on several occasions been treated with consideration.

Far from it: the Christians of Syria were treated as idolaters and apostates and as in Iraq massacres alternated with burnings. The citizens of Damascus who, after a furious resistance, had been authorised by a solemn treaty to leave the country and carry with them their belongings, were then attacked as soon as they had got into open country, and were robbed and massacred (Sedillot op.cit. p.135)

Abu Bakr died with the satisfaction of having pacified Arabia in two years and won two important provinces for Islam.


‘Umar Ibn al Khattab  (634-644) (‘The Prince of Believers‘)

Before Abu Bakr died he designated ‘Umar as his successor and so this most influential of the associates of Muhammad agreed to become the second caliph. During his reign as Caliph Islam underwent a tremendous expansion.

Finding themselves in the midst of a refined people who had inherited the rich treasures of Hellenic culture, the Arabs without laws and social organisation, must have been greatly astonished at the organisation of a community with an orderly constitution and a functional administrative machinery. ‘Umar was inspired by this organisation to establish the first foundations of Muslim government.

In earlier years, back in Medina, ‘Umar was more a counsellor rather than a soldier although he did take part in the battles of Badr, Uhud and the Ditch, but not a great deal is known about his military activity. He seems to have been a quiet type of man whose intelligence made him a natural leader and an administrator. He turned the Muslim victories into regular cash payments, for example Jerusalem by payment of an annual tribute, purchased the right to preserve its churches and to practice its own religion. The citizens of Aleppo escaped massacre by paying three hundred pieces of gold (Tariikh al-Khulafah History of the Caliphs” by Suyuti the classic Sunni scholar); and other cities bought themselves off in the same way. In this way ‘Umar became the founder of the Caliphate treasure, which was to attain such fabulous proportions under the Umayyads and the Abbassids.

‘Umar structured his society so that Christian parents were free to practice their religion, but the education of their children was taken out of their hands. Arabic became the official language and all posts, favours and privileges were granted exclusively to Muslims so that imperceptibly people were led to renounce their beliefs. This regime which favoured the Muslims, led to the  Syrian proletariat adopting the new religion and when becoming equal in status to their Muslim overlords they were able to administer the country. Syria, pacified and subjected to tribute escaped further pillage and ‘Umar turned to Egypt.

Egypt, which was a Byzantine province was at this time profoundly divided firstly, by race between the Greek conquerors and the natives of the country, and then by religious quarrels. In this Alexandrian centre, where so many new ideas had fermented on the decline of paganism, the Christian doctrines had not been able to retain their original purity. The Christian Church in Egypt was Coptic, that is, it believed in the teaching of Eutychus to the effect that Christ did not have two natures, a divine and a human, but one divine-human nature. When the Egyptian Christians refused to accept the decisions of the synod of Chalcedon in 451, the Empire treated them as heretics and persecuted them. This continued up to the time of the Arabian attack on Egypt in 640. By that time the Egyptians were so weary of the persecution of the Orthodox that they would rather submit to Islam than remain longer under the heel of their Christian oppressors. There is perhaps no more tragic event in the history of the Christian Church than the fall of Egypt. To a certain extent the same circumstances existed in Palestine and Syria. The division of the Christians played a great role in the Muslim conquests.

Burdened by persecution for their ideas by the orthodox Emperors of Constantinople and by vexatious taxation they looked to the Muslims as liberators. So when the conqueror of Egypt, ‘Amr b. Al ‘As approached, the Greeks were beaten at the first encounter. Some cities held out but by 641 the whole country was in the hands of the invaders. The Copts who had not sought support from the Christian west were rewarded by receiving certain privileges and were authorised to practice their religion on the payment of an annual tribute of two ducats per person. In the first year 640, this yielded twelve mi llion ducats; a considerable sum for that period (Al-Waqidi). Encouraged by this result, ‘Umar extended the tax to all the inhabitants and then proceeded to tax the landed proprietors according to the value of their estates.

The Copts, by their knowledge of the language and customs of the country were the only people capable of replacing the former Greek officials, and it was they who filled the various posts and especially collected the taxes. A century later Muslim policy changed and the Copts became to be viewed as propertied pariahs living off a Muslim state. They were compelled to wear blue turbans to distinguish themselves from Muslims and some of their priests were branded with a red-hot iron. Later still, when Muslim religious fanaticism increased, they were reduced to such a pitiful condition that the greater part of them had to abandon their faith.

At the same time as ‘Umar was carrying on the conquest of Syria and Egypt he continued that of Persia. When ‘Umar sent his armies against Persia there had just been much unrest in the country, one king had succeeded another, and the land was not unified.  After a number of battles there took place the great battle of Qadisiyyah in 637. The king of Persia fled, re-organized an army and was again defeated in the final great battle of the war at Nehavand, in 641. This was the end of the Persian Empire. The Muslims took possession one after another of Assyria, Media, Suziana, Perside and the Persian provinces placed under the authority of China. The booty was immense! The part played by ‘Umar in establishing the Islamic state is considerable and under his caliphate it developed a system that meant that Islam was there to stay.

Back in Syria the Meccan, Muawayya, son of Abu Sufyan, managed to get himself appointed Governor. He was notoriously known for his disordered life and showed contempt for religious laws. Fascinated by the manners of the inhabitants, who had acquired by contact with Byzantine civilisation a love of pleasure and a science of luxury and well-being undreamed of in Arabia, he forgot about many of the features of Islam. He wrote to his friends in Mecca and drew for them such an attractive picture that the greater part of them hurried to join him. Muawiyya therefore surrounded himself with an elegant and refined court, which very soon acquired Byzantine manners and formed a striking contrast to the puritanical old Muslims of Medina.

‘Umar foresaw difficulties with those who had embraced Islam and lived in Medina against those Quarraish who had received Islam only at the taking of Mecca. When he was stabbed by a Gheber in the mosque at Medina and knowing the serious nature of his wounds he decided to call six of the most devout persons to nominate a new Caliph and therefore remove any political intrigues that would follow his death. Among the six there figured Ali, Uthman, Zubair and Talha. Intrigues there certainly were, but actuated by diverse motives they all agreed on the choice of Uthman

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