Shamsheer 0 Sana Awwal Taoos 0 Rabab Aakhir
Shouting the name of Allah, Arab armies within 100 years seized a realm
that stretched from Spain to Central Asia. Fourteen centuries ago, Arab warriors forged an empire greater than Rome's.
The Islamic empire was more far-flung at its zenith than ancient Rome's-from Spain to Soviet Central
Asia, from Sicily to the southern Sahara. Wherever Arab armies fought, and Arab scholars taught, a remarkable modern legacy
of their power and learning still exists.
In the first hundred years the banners of Islam spanned three continents, from the rim of China to
Allah had commanded Mohammed to make war against nonbelievers. The first target was the annual caravan
marching south from Damascus, a thousand camels laden with goods of his enemies, the Meccan merchants. Forewarned of the Moslems'
plans, the Meccans rushed reinforcements to rescue the caravan.
At the wells of Badr, near the Red Sea coast, they surprised Mohammed's army of 300.
"All who die today will enter paradise!" the prophet shouted over the slashing of swords and the
whistle of arrows. Outnumbered three to one, the Moslems fought savagely and routed the Meccans. "It was not ye who slew them,"
Allah revealed to Mohammed. "It was God."
A year later, at Mount Uhud near Medina, the Meccans retaliated, nearly killing Mohammed himself.
He was wounded in the face by a stone, then a sword glanced off his helmet and he fell, bleeding. Companions carried him to
Slowly, by treaty and by skirmish, Mohammed converted the Bedouin tribes of the surrounding desert,
mustering their swords and swift camels to his cause. Not until the year 630, two decades after his vision, did Mohammed the
conqueror reenter his native city, now leading an army of 10,000. Mecca surrendered without a fight. The prophet walked to
the Kaaba, touched the Black Stone, and made the prescribed seven circuits. He ordered the idols smashed, and then declared
a general amnesty. Meccans filed past to swear allegiance to the Prophet of God.
Within ten years much of Arabia was united under the banner of Islam.
But the Prophet's personal mission was nearing its end. Back in Medina he fell ill of fever. Weakening
with each passing day, he had to delegate Abu Bakr-later to become his successor, the first caliph-to lead the public prayers.
On June 8, 632, in the arms of his favorite wife, Aisha, Mohammed whispered his last devotions, and then peacefully surrendered
to Allah's will.
There is no better place to savor the full measure of Moslem faith than here in Medina, the footsteps
of the Prophet of God still echo in these narrow streets.
The first Arab thrusts from Medina were little more than Bedouin raids. But Moslems were forbidden
to attach brother Moslems. Instead they united against the infidels to the north: Byzantium and Persia-both weakened by years
of mutual warfare.
In Palestine and Syria the desert warriors of Islam's most famous general, Khalid ibn al-Walid, clashed
with armies of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Against the better disciplined and more numerous Byzantine soldiers, the Arabs
pitted their greater mobility and unbridled zeal. In 636, at the battle of Yarmuk near the present border between Jordan and
Syria, the Arab army, outnumbered two to one, faced 50,000 Byzantine troops in one of the decisive battles of history.
The Byzantine infantrymen took oaths to "stand or die" and chained themselves to gather, 10 on a
shackle, 30 ranks deep. On the other side, the women accompanying the Moslem soldiers stood ready behind the lines with tent
poles and stones to punish any cowards who turned from battle. They goaded their men:
We are the daughters of the night...
If you advance we will embrace you;
If you retreat we
will forsake you.
Amid shouts of "Allah Akbar!-God is most great!"-the emperor's troops fell like ripe wheat under
the flashing Arab blades. His army annihilated, Heraclius retreated to his capital on the Bosporus; the Byzantine Empire had
lost the Holy Land and Syria.
The city of Damascus, then Christian, had surrendered after an earlier six-month siege. And Khalid
had issued terms that served as a model for future Arab conquests:
In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the Merciful. This is given by Khalid ibn al-Walid to the
people of Damascus... safety for themselves, their property, their churches, and the walls of their city...as long as they
pay the jizya."
Those who converted to Islam were exempted from the jizya, a yearly head tax-one dinar and a measure
HEROIC IN BATTLE, the Arab could be noble in victory. Their magnanimity at Damascus was not lost
on Sophronius. The Byzantine patriarch of beleaguered Jerusalem. He sued for peace.
Caliph Omar, the second successor to the Prophet, came personally to accept the surrender and to
promise Jerusalem security for its people and its churches. Jerusalem was a holy city for the Moslems, too; they included
Jesus Christ among their many prophets. Mohammed himself first prayed toward Jerusalem, but after the Jews in Medina turned
against him, he changed the direction of prayer to Mecca.
The patriarch took Caliph Omar to the Holy Sepulcher. They arrived at the time of prayer, and a soldier
started to spread Omar's prayer mat on the floor of the church. But the wise caliph declined, stepping outside for his devotions.
He knew that if the Prince of the Faithful prayed here, later Moslems might be moved to convert the sacred site into a mosque.
Today a small mosque does mark the spot where Omar prayed.
DURING THE RULE of Caliph Omar, the Arab conquest gained its greatest momentum. In ten years most
of the Middle East fell to his armies, fanning out simultaneously into Persia and North Africa.
Along the Nile a fortress called Babylon-where Cairo stands today-surrendered in 641 after
a bloody seven-month siege. Within 18 months its conqueror , Amr ibn al-As, had taken Alexandria, Byzantium's main naval base,
a metropolis, second only to Constantinople itself. His spoils included "4,000 taxpaying Jews and 400 places of entertainment
for the royalty."
The same dash and fervor that stripped Byzantium of its fairest provinces doomed the Persian Empire.
In Iraq, Sa'ad ibn Abi waqqas withered the forces of Yazdegird 111 like a searing desert wind and took the fertile island
between the Tigris and Euphrates. The king of kings fled northward to Merv, in what is today the Soviet Union, and Persia
ceased to be.
The wealth and luxury of Persia dazzled its rustic conquerors. Many of the Arabs innocently exchanged
"yellow" money for "white"; silver they had always used, but gold was new.
One of Sa'ad's soldiers was said to have captured a nobleman's daughter, then sold her back for 1,000
dirham. When told he could easily have demanded many times the ransom, he replied he had never heard of a number more than
If the Arabs had worlds to learn from the 1,500-year-old civilization of Persia, so, too, had they
much to teach. Under stable Arab power and inspired by Islam, Persian art and science continued to thrive, and over the centuries
the cultures fused. The Persian provinces bred some of Islam's greatest poets and scholars, men such as Hafiz, Saadi, and
According to one tale, it was an act of piracy that prompted the Arabs' first move into India. Pilgrims
traveling to Mecca from Ceylon were dragged off their ship while in the harbor of Daybul, in the delta of the Indus. They
were imprisoned there by the local raja.
Outraged, the Arab viceroy in Iraq sent an army under Mohammed ibn Qasim. This remarkable general
led his men on a 1,500-mile march across the deserts of Baluchistan and Sind. The Arab force stormed Daybul and killed the
raja, then marched up the Indus Valley. General Ibn Qasim was 17.
Though the Arabs had thus sown Islam in India, it was left to later dynasties to reap the harvest.
Sweeping out of Afghanistan three centuries later, the Ghaznavids-named for their ancient Afghan city, Ghazna-built a lasting
Moslem presence on the subcontinent.
As Islam was raising its first banners along the Indus, a thousand miles across the Hindu Kush to
the north the caliph's governor of Persia, Qutayba ibn Muslim, crossed the Oxus River and the deserts of Turkistan. His fierce
cavalrymen quickly captured the oases of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent before marching on, some accounts say, into China
From the Nile the Arabs pushed their frontiers west. In 682 a bold general named Uqba ibn Nafi led
his cavalry on a whirlwind sweep across North Africa through Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. On a sandy beach near Agadir the
flamboyant Uqba, nearly 3,000 miles from the Arab capital in Damascus, finally galloped into the surf of the Atlantic. "Lord
God, bear witness," he shouted over the breakers, "were I not stopped by this sea I would conquer more lands for Thy sake!"
Uqba's successors established an Arab presence in North Africa that endures to this day. One by one
the last Byzantine coastal strongholds-Tripoli, Carthage, Tangier-crumbled; Arab fleets soon made the Mediterranean a Moslem
It was caravans, not cavalry that carried the message of Mohammed south across the vast Sahara. Long
lines of camels, driven by Tuareg nomads, took cloth, brassware, sugar, salt, and fine leatherwork to Kumbi and Gao and Timbuktu,
returning with ivory, gold, and slaves. So, over the centuries, the seeds of Islam sprouted; today, Moslems out number Christians
in Africa two to one.
The Atlantic stopped Uqba ibn Nafi's drive across Africa, but Europe lay only nine miles across a
strait. In 711 Tariq ibn Ziyad landed an army of 12,000 near the rock that still bears his name, Jabal Tariq (Mountain of
In a savage battle near Cadiz, the Moslems overwhelmed the Visigoths and their king, Roderick. The
Christians relinquished their tenuous hold on the peninsula, city by city, until within six years Spain was Arab.
In 732-exactly a century after the Prophet's death-the great Arab wave crested; a raiding party reached
Poitiers, deep in France, there to be repulsed by Charles Martel.
Having passed the torch that helped to light Europe's Dark Ages, the Arabs slipped into a long and
fitful sleep, from which only now they are rubbing their eyes. Nahda, the Arabs call it-renaissance. So far it is merely a
feeling, a beginning, a spirit one senses throughout the Arab world.
The days of the empires are over. But surely the Arabs will, Insha Allah, flourish once more under
their common religion, culture, and language. Eventually an incident about the skeptic who taunted Mohammed about Islam's
promise of resurrection: "What possible power could raise a man to life again from mere dust and bones?
"That power which, from clay, created him in the first place," the Prophet
had answered calmly.