The Early Islamic Conquests: A moral and religious persepective
I was motivated to research and write this Hub after coming across comments that some Muslims felt difficulty in defending certain military conflicts in the early history of Islam. Also, a brother from Pakistan—a country that suffers deeply from religious violence—expressed the desire to better understand the nature of these military conflicts and to reconcile them with religious teachings especially as these occurred during the time of the holy Rashideen Caliphate (the rightly-guided successors of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh)).
I will not be covering the conflicts during the time of Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) which are generally understood as defensive. I will, however, cover the incident of the punishment of death for the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraizah after the ‘Battle of The Ditch’ when their treason was revealed. For the purpose of remaining focused I will also not cover the ‘Ridda’ or ‘Apostasy’ wars that occurred shortly after the death of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)—these were largely a typical tribal reaction to pledges and agreements that were considered null and void by tribal leaders as they rebelled in an attempt to arrest the development of Islam by capitalizing on the death of its highly successful founder, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Hence, several tribal leaders such as the famous Musailma Kazaab rose against Medina and were decisively put down despite the Muslim army spread thin up to the Syrian border to draw a front against the imminent confrontation with the Roman-Byzantine Empire. My focus, largely, will be on the highly successful invasions and subsequent expansion by the early Muslims in the two neighboring and warring super-powers of the time: The Persian Sassanids and the Roman Byzantine.
But first, allow me to touch upon why this is important. Opponents of Islam today use these conflicts as a polemic. They attempt to equate modern terrorism with these early Islamic campaigns. The terror groups themselves leverage these events to draw credit and argument for themselves. Muslims too feel they need to reconcile these with religious teachings. Perhaps most important of all in the understanding of the nature of these conflicts and their wider context is that many Muslims believe, per literal interpretations of symbolism used in Islamic eschatology, that there will be a heavenly resurgence of such glorious victories in the latter-days under the leadership of The Messiah or The Mahdi ushering in the final victory of Islam. This notion is wrongly equated with a Jihad-of-the-sword. Hardline clerics exploit such misconceptions and inculcate a mentality of animosity and confrontation. This at times results in terrible acts of violence and unrest.
This controversial video below called ‘The Third Jihad’ assembled by personalities perceived as anti-Islam is a good case in point. The video is about the threat to western liberties. Interestingly, it is authored by a Muslim in the United States known as Dr. Zudi Jasser who is obviously concerned over these brewing notions of Jihad and appears to believe that a ‘Third’ Jihad is in the planning. His statements reveal a conflict. On the one had he claims to be a devout Muslim and follower of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). On the other, he equates a threat to western liberties, whether militant or cultural, with the military campaigns that occurred during or shortly after the life of Muhammad (pbuh). This is an unacceptable contradiction. I would highly recommend those interested in this subject to watch this one hour video because it reflects the nature of the conflict that Muslims themselves feel with the history of these wars.
The Documentary "The Third Jihad" reflects westerns fears and interpretations of Islamic ambitions
The legacy of the Islamic Organization with Migration to Medina
After 13 years of intense persecution of Muslims in Mecca, it had become apparent that migration must be considered to escape the society that was bent on destroying them. When Muhammad (pbuh) received an invitation from the delegates of the city of Medina, it was not for him to come there and to begin a military operation to reign in the feuding tribes of Medina. He had no such experience at the time. He was chosen for the task of an arbitrator. It was thought that as a follower of monotheism and a believer in the Biblical prophets he would resonate with the Jewish tribes. And, as an Arab he may resonate with the polytheist tribes. He had the profile to bring them to the negotiating table and succeed. They were not wrong. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had immediately set to the task of establishing agreements, treaties and rights among the tribes. There was a tireless effort so that peace could be established in and around the city of Medina and the Muslims come through on the task that was entrusted to them. Meccans were furious. After relentless efforts attempting to stamp out the Islamic movement, in a short time it had not only found a new home in Median but a position of leadership and government. In a burst of fury, they took to looting the homes and properties of Muslims some of which were abandoned and some remained with relatives. The loot would be taken to Damascus to be sold off but the Muslims from Medina would rightfully intercept such trade expeditions to reclaim their property where possible. Mecca then raised an army to destroy the Muslims with battles in the offing.
The Constitution of Medina, drafted by Prophet Muhammad for organizing peace and agreement between the feuding Medina tribes, is the first reported document to guarantee freedom of conscience and religion. The 'Charter of Privileges' issued per request of St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai guaranteeing their freedom of religion is further proof of this. He emphasized deeply on social and racial equality. According to historian Bernard Lewis, "Historians generally agree that Islamic social reforms in areas such as social welfare, family structure, slavery and the rights of women and children improved on the status quo of Arab society". Lewis also writes that one of the reasons of the amazing and rapid success of early Islam was its rejection of traditional privileges and hierarchies and an emphasis on talent and merit. (source: Islamic Revolution by B. Lewis)
The Treason and Punishment of the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraizah
I chose to cover this incident because of its intense nature and because it comes up a lot during discussions of early Islam. The Banu Quraizah were a Jewish tribe under pact with the Muhammad (pbuh) that they will not oppose them during an armed conflict. However, historical reports agree that they engaged in negotiations with The Confederate Army that had assembled against the Muslims in what is known as “The Battle of The Ditch”. The negotiations are reported to have failed. The attacking army was expected to be so large and so serious about destroying the Islamic movement, that it was decided a ditch be dug all around Medina in order for a chance to survive the onslaught. It worked. After a siege lasting days ending in a stalemate the Confederates retreated and the Muslims emerged victorious in defense.
Immediately, the Banu Quraizah were pursued on account of their treason and after a successful siege that lasted many days, reportedly a punishment of execution was passed against the tribe. A couple of versions of history exist on how this may have happened. Depending on whose version one reads (Jewish or Muslim), accounts differ on the indiscriminate nature and method of the punishment. According to accounts narrated by Muslims Banu Quraizah had submitted to judgment by Saad bin Ma’adah, a prominent Jewish convert to Islam, who issued the decree of death consistent with Jewish law in The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:15). The Holy Quran makes a summary statement of the event in 33:26 stating that "some were killed while others taken prisoner"—so the punishment was not indiscriminate and spared those not deemed as having participated directly in the treason. As Muslims, we are bound to accept this statement of The Holy Quran.
However, for one to judge the severity of the punishment we must take account of the circumstances and sensitivities at the time. The Battle of the Ditch was the third fought between the Muslims and their enemies. The first was a humiliating defeat for the non-Muslims. The second had nearly ended in victory for the Muslims but a premature claim of victory and a rush for the spoils-of-war permitted a flank attack resulting in a strategic retreat. The Meccans then set about to call on every sympathetic party to raise The Confederate Army-- it would not have been hard to sell the notion that given all that had happened up to that point, the Islamic movement was emerging as a powerful threat to authority in the region. And, if it is not put down and destroyed now, it may be too late. The Muslims had to prepare fervently for battle as well reaffirming and confirming every pact and agreement they had on their side. Given the attempt to destroy the Islamic movement, sensitivities would be at their greatest. All this goes to reveal the severity of the situation. Under such circumstances treason is the last thing one hopes to have to deal with, and if it did happen then the strongest possible punishment against it cannot be argued with.
Khalid bin Walid and The Battle of Mutah (First Blood Drawn by The Romans)
The reason I want to cover this battle is to highlight the fact that there was an early face-off between the Muslims and the Roman Byzantine empire-- later to be successfully invaded and routed by Muslim armies. According to Muslim historians, an emissary had been sent to the Roman empire to deliver the invitation to the religion of Islam. The emissary was murdered by The Ghassanid dynasty which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. As a response to this act, a Muslim army of 3,000 was despatched. The Ghassanids managed to assemble a reported 200,000. Hence ensued the Battle of Mutah which raged for days and is known for a lot of tactical maneuvering. This is the battle that brought the famous Khalid bin Walid to the forefront of battlefield command as three others in the chain of command before him lost their lives. The battle ended in a tactical retreat by the Muslims. Khalid bin Walid reported that the fighting was so fierce that he went through nine swords. Having faced off and survived an army nearly ten times their size, Muhammad (pbuh) awarded Khalid bin Walid the title of “Saifullah” (The Sword of Allah). Khalid bin Walid would later go on to become one of the greatest military commanders the world had ever seen, especially for his tactical battlefield brilliance. He is reported to have won over a hundred battles including the successful military conquest leading to the fall of the Roman and Persian Empires. This event is the first reported military engagement between the Muslims and Romans, and indicates that first blood was drawn by The Romans.
The Real Islamic Caliphate
The Caliphate of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab
The Caliphate of Umar bin Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) is a very important event in the study of this subject. Whereas the successful military expeditions into the Persian and Roman empires occurred during the Caliphate of Abu Bakar (may Allah be pleased with him), historians have cast Caliph Omar as the ‘founder of the Islamic Empire’. Umar’s reign as Caliph not only saw further conquest but consolidation and widespread political activity that lead to the greatest expansion of the empire and a footprint which with the exception of Spain survives to this day after 1,400 years. Caliph Umar is known as a political genius more than a military one. In fact, given Caliph Umar’s faith in divine decree, he retired Khalid bin Walid as field commander and then later retired him from active military duty for the sake of proving that the Islamic Empire was not built on the principle of military conquest. This in itself is a great testimony that Islam did not spread nor holds the doctrine of spreading the religion on the basis of a Jihad of aggression. Omar remained faithful to Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) principles of religious freedom and after conquering Jerusalem, he ended a ban on Jews from entering the city. Below is the text of Caliph Umar's announcement upon the conquest of Jerusalem:
In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, most Beneficent. This is a covenant of peace granted by the slave of Allah, the commander of the faithful 'Umar to the people of Jerusalem. They are granted protection for their lives, their property, their churches, and their Crosses, in whatever condition they are. All of them are granted the same protection. No one will dwell in their churches, nor will they be destroyed and nothing will be reduced of their belongings. Nothing shall be taken from their Crosses or their property. There will be no compulsion on them regarding their religion, nor will any one of them be troubled.
History speaks of remarkable efforts and advances in political and civil administration under the rule of Caliph Umar. There was a particular emphasis on formulating the correct public policy for areas and regions under the empire. Not only was policy formulation a key priority but its effectiveness and results were keenly observed and anticipated. There was also strong emphasis on the welfare of the poor and afflicted. Caliph Umar is known to personally review the results of policies by canvassing the towns and cities under his rule and speaking often with ordinary citizens about the effects of public policy.
Under his leadership the Islamic legacy grew remarkably and formed itself as not just great campaigns in the battlefield but as developers of civilization with achievements in government, meritocracy, urban development, public policy, science, arts, culture etc.
It is believed that this framework was key in laying the foundation of the Abbasid Caliphate which saw the greatest advancement in scientific knowledge and application since The Greek Civilization.
The Sassanid-Persian and Roman-Byzantine Wars
Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Arabian tribal chieftains made a last ditch effort to rise against the Islamic movement to capitalize on the death of its founder. Some battles were fought and the rebels were decisively put down. Arabia was now truly consolidated under the Islamic State espousing principles of equality, peace, justice, human rights, fair trade among others. These values for the early Muslims would provide immense strength and foundation for the expansion of the empire. Since the Islamic movement had now truly emerged as a unified power to be reckoned with, they would have the attention of the Romans and Persians. And, given the emissary murder episode and the Battle of Muta as given above in the Hub, a conflict with these powers was inevitable. Skirmishes between units of the armies of the Muslims and these super-powers had already occurred making a larger conflict inevitable.
The Roman and Persian empires had been at war for a protracted period of time. The seemingly endless war had taken a terrible toll on the populations starved of resources and burdened by a heavy war tax that had grown over the years. This condition is one of the reasons that historians cite as factor in the speedy conquests of the Islamic military advance that began with the Persians under the first Caliphate of Abu Bakar. The Muslims were tenacious to the rules and principles laid out by the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which accorded autonomy and rights to locals as well as espousing principles of higher education and establishing services for communities. Following are the instructions that the First Caliph Abu Bakar (may Allah be pleased with him) gave to his armies . . .
"When you leave a place do not cause them difficulty in marching. Do not punish your men harshly. Consult them on every matter. Do not abandon justice and stay far from injustice and tyranny because no tyrant nation has ever obtained success. Do not slay any small child, old people, women or pre-adolescent. Do not approach the harvests of the trees. Crops should not be burnt nor fruit trees cut. Do not slaughter any animal which is impermissible. Do not break any agreement which you make with the enemy, and after peace, do not tear up your treaties. Remember that you will also meet such people who have undertaken monasticism in their monasteries, thinking this to be for the sake of Allah. Do not interfere with them and do not destroy their monasteries and do not kill them".
It must be pointed out that these conquests should not be held with the holy injunction of Jihad as prescribed in The Holy Quran verses 22:39-40. These verses permit Muslims to take up a Jihad in the battlefield when they were unduly wronged and persecuted. This does not go to say that these events did not have a heavenly decree. In fact, the next section discusses a prophecy of The Holy Bible that very much indicates that, despite the benefit of bringing down two warring powers with exhausted populations, there was even a heavenly decree to these conquests.
Holy Bible Prophecy
The passage below is reproduced from "An Introduction to the Study of The Holy Quran" by Mirza Bashirudin Mehmud (may Allah be pleased with him) who was the second Caliph of the The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam. The passage is also available from his booklet known as "Muhammad in The Bible".
According to the book of Daniel, chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, had a dream, which he forgot soon after. Then he called upon the wise men of his time to tell him both the dream and its meaning. None of them, however, was able to do so. Daniel prayed to God and had the dream and its meaning revealed to him.
The dream was as follows:—
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth (Daniel 2:3135).
The interpretation which Daniel gave of the dream was the following:
Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron; forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men; but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain, without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure (Daniel 2:37-45).
His feet (i.e., the image’s) part of iron and part of clay (2:33). The description points to the fact that the Roman Empire would cover parts of Europe as well as Asia. Iron legs denote the European part of the Roman Empire and point to the strength of a single nationality and a single faith. But the feet, says the dream, were partly of iron, partly of clay. This meant that the European power was to subjugate parts of Asia and thus become an imperial power. Imperial powers command large territories and vast resources, but they also suffer from the inherent weakness which comes from lack of cohesion among their peoples. The dream evidently means that in latter years the Roman Empire would begin to decline because of this lack of cohesion. The dream, however, proceeds to say more important things:
Here we have a prediction of the rise of Islam. Early Islam clashed first with Rome and then with Iran. When they clashed with Rome, Rome had conquered the Alexandrian Empire of Greece and had become more powerful than ever; and when they clashed with Iran, Iran had extended its power over Babylon. When their clashes resulted in the destruction of both Rome and Iran, then did the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, break to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors. The order of events in the dream and their interpretation by Daniel leave no doubt as to their meaning.
Everybody knows that Babylon was succeeded by Persia and Midia and the power of Persia and Midia was broken by Alexander and the Empire of Alexander was replaced by that of Rome which from its Eastern seat of authority at Constantinople laid the foundation of a mighty Europo-Asiatic Empire. This Asiatic Roman Empire was defeated and destroyed by the Holy Prophet and his Companions. Once receiving a report that the Roman armies intended to attack the Muslims, he led an expedition in person to the Syrian border. But no regular fighting then took place. Irregular skirmishes and raids, however, continued till regular fighting was resumed in the time of Abu Bakr which resulted in the total discomfiture and annihilation of the Roman Empire in the time of Umar, the Second Khalifa, when the Persian Empire also suffered defeat at the hands of Muslim armies. The Roman Empire also suffered defeat at the hands of Muslim armies. Thus both these once mighty empires shrank into diminutive and distant States.
And from Matthew, chapter 21, it appears that the Promised One— the stone of the prophecy—is not Jesus, but another coming after Jesus, and in 21:44 we have a fine description of the stone: And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
Similarly in Psalms 118:22 we have: The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. To this there is reference also in Matthew (21:42): Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. As we have shown above, Jesus himself denies all claim to this prophecy, which applies to one coming after the son is slain. Christians today fondly apply the prophecy to their Church. But this attempt will not avail. According to Daniel, the thighs of the image were made of brass, the legs (i.e., the Roman Empire) of iron and the feet of iron and clay; the stone smote the image upon his feet. Early Islam, that is to say, was to clash with the borders of the Asiatic part of the Roman Empire and smash it to pieces. The Roman Empire was the temporal expression of the Christian Church. The stone of the prophecy, therefore, was to clash with the Church. The stone could not be the Church, for the Church could not clash with the Church. Nor could it be Jesus. For Jesus came long before the Eastern Roman Empire. Whoever destroyed the might of the Roman Empire, fulfilled this prophecy. The prophecy, therefore, applies to the Holy Prophet of Islam and his followers, and to no one else. The stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth (Daniel 2:35).
This is exactly what happened. The Holy Prophet and his band of devotees defeated the Kaiser and the Chosroes, and Muslims became rulers over the whole of the then known world. The stone did become a great mountain; for a thousand years the direction of world affairs remained in the hands of Muslims.
An Account of the Islamic Legacy as narrated by contemporary documentarian
Reconciling to the True Legacy
In my opinion, the way to view the early Islamic military campaigns is to put them in perspective of the overall legacy of history. Opponents of Islam will draw attention to these events as the principal modus operandi to spread Islam. The have 'headline' and 'attention' value and are sensational in nature, but do not stand to the test of thorough study. The Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) principles of freedom of religion and conscience as dictated by The Holy Quran were always indispensable to those Muslims who truly followed his guidance.
The Muslims were always impassioned proselytizers of their religion given their sense of conviction. There are plenty of examples in the history of Islam where vast swaths of population converted without any military campaigns at all. Interestingly, the most populous Muslim country today, Indonesia with an estimated 200 million people, was won over entirely by exposure through traders and delegates who were also active proselytizers. Malaysia, which is now majority Muslim, also has the same story. China has an estimated 20 million Muslims where no Muslim conquest has ever taken place. The Mongolian Empire in history must be commended for their policy of religious freedom. In a unique turn in history, sometime after the Mongolian conquest of Iran in 1219 AD, as the Mongolians were exposed to Islam, three of the four major Khanates (states of the Mongolian Empire) had converted to Islam. In the Indian Subcontinent, although the Moghul rulers came there in conquest, the Great Moghul Emperor Akbar kept non-Muslim wives including one from the Hindu religion as a symbol of his commitment to freedom of religion. Today, some 500 million + Muslims live in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh whose forefathers were converts; nobody put a sword to their throat. In fact, unlike events like the Spanish Inquisition where people were forced to convert to Christianity and accept the doctrine of The Trinity or be put to death, no such event of compulsion on the basis of religion can be found in the early history of Islam. I will cover the contemporary problems related to terrorism in a later Hub.
Finally, there are two video clips in this section of 10 minutes each from a documentary called “When The Moors Ruled Spain”. In it, British historian Bethany Hughes narrates the Islamic legacy of Cordoba in Spain is marked by world-authority, splendor in scientific progress, urban development, architecture and culture that was the envy of the world at the time. Bethany states that one of the key attributes of Islam was that it was a religion dedicated to the pursuit of learning and development. As Bethany Hughes explores the aesthetic enchantment and the mathematical ingenuity of the Alhambra palace in Spain with Professor Antonio Fernandez-Puertas, she articulates as follows . . .
"The Alhambra is so enchanting it’s all too easy to view it as a fairy tale palace isolated from history, but that is romantic nonsense! This palace was the product of a very real very gritty history. The Alhambra was built by a religious empire that at the pinnacle of its power dominated land from China to Africa, an empire which had the wealth and intellect to build such masterpieces, an empire whose history goes back to the deserts of 7th century Arabia.
The Alhambra was the creation of the richest, most intellectually powerful civilization in the world. The roots of this civilization lie not in Spain but in the deserts of Arabia. At the beginning of the 7th century in Saudi Arabia something happened that would change the religious makeup of the world forever. A merchant called Muhammad asserted that he had been visited by the Archangel Gabriel who had revealed to him the true words of God. These revelations, which came to Muhammad throughout his life, came to be known as The Quran, and the religion was Islam."
Disclaimer: The contents of this hub do not represent The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam or The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The official website of The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam or The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is www.alislam.org