(ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE – continued)

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ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (3 of 6)

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Arabs Conquer Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine

Justinian's empire

The Byzantine Empire after Justinian's conquests and before Muslim conquests

Muslim Empire in the late 600s

The Muslim empire in the late 600s

The momentum generated by victories against dissidents and breakaway regions left Islamic warriors restless and aggressive. Moreover, Arabia was depressed economically, trade having come to a standstill with ten years of war. Some of Islam's warriors were hungry for booty. They began making raids into Mesopotamia – an alternative to raiding "the faithful" in Arabia. It was three years since Constantinople and the Persians had ended their war. Anarchy reigned, and for a while not much was left of Sassanid power. Muslim raiders into Mesopotamia found little resistance, and success encouraged more and bigger raids. The caliph, Abu Bakr, went along with it. Finding the warriors joyous in their victories, he declared a holy war on their behalf.

In 634, Bakr sent troops northwest into Palestine, nominally under Byzantine rule. Around twenty miles west of Jerusalem they met an army sent by Constantinople. There, at what is known as the Battle of Ajnadayn. Constantinople's force was made up of local troops, whose morale didn't match the high moral of the Muslims. The Muslims also had superior mobility. Constantinople's force broke and scattered, and the Muslim cavalry chased down the survivors and annihilated them.

Bakr died without learning of the great victory in Palestine. A successor he had chosen, Umar ibn-al-Khattab, became caliph. He had been an early convert to Islam and one of Muhammad's closest companions.

Like Bakr, Umar lived frugally. It is said that he owned only one shirt and slept on a bed of palm leaves. His rule began with the siege of Damascus – the Muslim warriors still combating Constantinople's imperial forces. Six months later, in September 635, Damascus capitulated, and the conquering Muslims promised the people of Damascus protection in exchange for taxes.

Against the Muslim force in southern Mesopotamia, the Sassanid Empire was struggling with exhausted and demoralized troops. It managed to send an army that included elephants, and that army defeated the Muslims. But in subsequent battles Islamic warriors overcame their fear of Persia's elephants. With their swift horses and camels they moved beyond fortresses and defeated Sassanid armies. After their victory at the Battle of Qadisiya in 637, the Muslim army was able to move across the whole of Mesopotamia. In 638 they captured the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, by the Tigris River in Mesopotamia. Also in 638 they overran Jerusalem, then Caesarea fifty miles to the north. In only three years, the Arabs had conquered Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

In Palestine and Syria, Umar's army had created the impression that they were warring against the Byzantine empire rather than against local people: Christians who looked upon the emperor at Constantinople as an enemy. These were Monophysite Christians, abused by the Trinity-believing emperors at Constantinople.

Generally, the Islamic forces had been disciplined. But they had often been fighting on empty stomachs and depending upon plunder for their meals. The conquerors had taken over the land and houses that had been abandoned by those fleeing to Constantinople. The conquerors had plundered the wealthy while in general the common people (who had little to plunder) found them well-behaved.

The conquering Muslims had not been accompanied by missionaries attempting to interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of local people. People could worship as they pleased, but they were given the choice of converting to Islam or paying taxes. If they both refused to pay taxes and refused to convert to Islam they were subject to the penalty of death.


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