Islam's Conquest Of The Middle East, 634 CE

    February 2012          
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The Koran, The Tribute, Or The Sword!

By Gary Rashba

(Excerpted from Gary Rashba's HOLY WARS - 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land.)

When a lone Muslim Arab warrior reconnoitered Byzantine lines and killed 19 of the 30 men dispatched to challenge him, the Byzantine Army - successors of the great Roman Legions - saw it best to attempt buying its way out of battle.

The Byzantines knew how to fight formally organized armies like the Persians, whereas the Muslim Arab army was less conventional. Emperor Heraclius had thus warned his brother Theodore to beware of the Arabs, and avoid engaging in open battle with them. The two sides faced off for a week - time that the Byzantines probably used attempting to divide the enemy coalition, and hoping that the Muslims might possibly tire of campaigning and return home, as they were known to do after past raids. Contemporary Byzantine military strategy counseled such caution over decisive action. When the Muslim Arab army proved unwavering, the Byzantines opted to invoke a common practice of negotiating to avoid battle.

An old bishop approached the Muslim army asking to meet their commander. The bishop pitched to Khaled the Byzantine offer to give each Muslim "a dinar, a robe and a turban; and for you there will be a hundred dinars and a hundred robes and a hundred turbans" if the Arabs would withdraw from Syria. "Ye Christian dogs, you know your option," Khaled immediately responded. "The Koran, the tribute, or the sword!" meaning convert to Islam, pay the submissive jizya tribute, or war. "As for the dinars and fine clothes," Khaled reportedly added, "the Muslims would soon possess them anyway, by right of conquest!"

It was July 30, 634 CE, and the two armies were deployed at Ajnadayn along the road between Beit Guvrin and Jerusalem. With the Byzantine offer rejected, battle was now unavoidable. As the two armies formed up for combat, champions from both sides met in duels where the Muslims proved superior by killing several Byzantine officers and champions. Byzantine archers opened the attack with a massive barrage against the Muslims. The Muslims failed to respond, giving the impression they were unprepared for battle against such a modern army. Dressed in a motley assortment of robes and armor and equipped with a range of weapons and gear, the Muslim army lacked the appearance of a serious foe. But their restraint was due not to a lack of conviction or capability but rather to Muslim General Khaled ibn al-Walid's orders not to attack. Known as "the Sword of Allah," Khaled counseled discipline and patience to his men. The Arabian tribesmen were raring to fight, yet Khaled held them back while they absorbed the Byzantine barrage. The men implicitly trusted Khaled, an experienced and highly respected commander. When he determined the timing was right, Khaled finally gave the order to attack.

While accounts of the battle are sketchy, the engagement was thought to be unremarkable, with none of the clever maneuvering or stratagem for which the Muslim armies would become known. The Byzantines espoused a massive opening assault with arrows raining >down on the enemy to distract their foes until mounted lancers plowed through enemy lines. Apparently the Byzantines' shock assault was either thwarted or somehow failed to deliver its desired effect. After the Muslim Arabs absorbed the opening Byzantine barrage, the two sides fought a conventional battle in which casualties would have been high on both sides. Questionable Muslim sources tell us the Byzantines suffered massive casualties in the tens of thousands while the Muslims were relatively unscathed. With neither side managing to

get the better of the other, the Byzantine commander attempted to break the deadlock by means of a ruse to lure Khaled into an ambush.

Wardan asked under false pretenses to meet the Muslim commander to discuss peace terms - a classic Byzantine strategy of using cunning and duplicity to win battles. A Christian Arab betrayed the plan to Khaled, and it backfired; instead Wardan was said to be killed when he went to the designated meeting place. With the Byzantines reeling from the death of a senior commander, Khaled ordered his army to attack. Again, it was a physical and exhaustive exchange. When the Muslims penetrated a gap in Byzantine defenses, Byzantine front-line troops fell back, banking on protection by their rear lines. But the Christians could not coordinate their defense, despite their training in mutual support - perhaps the reliance on local troops had come at the expense of cohesion. Fresh Muslim reserves helped penetrate Christian lines, causing a breakdown of Byzantine resistance. Troops began fleeing the battlefield towards Jerusalem, Gaza and Jaffa in disorganized flight while Muslim horsemen ran them down.

Given the battle's outcome, Byzantine accounts are sparse while Muslim sources cite a serious defeat with extremely heavy Byzantine casualties. Muslim historian al-Waqidi put the Byzantine casualties at a highly exaggerated 50,000 versus 450 Muslims.

As Khaled had confidently declared before the battle, the booty - consisting of multiple banners and large crosses of gold and silver, precious stones, silver and gold chains, and suits of the richest armor and apparel - was indeed his by conquest. Adding insult to injury the Muslims offered to sell the booty back to the Byzantines. Also captured were countless weapons that the Muslims would put to use against the Byzantines in subsequent battles. The Muslim victory foreshadowed what would come two years later in the better-known Battle of Yarmuk, the outcome of which resulted in the loss of Syria to Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam.

While many Christians abandoned their homes and fled for safer parts of the Byzantine Empire, the Muslims' unexpected victory was embraced by the many people discontent with Byzantine rule. Syria's Christians - the majority of the population - were alienated from the official Byzantine Church over theological differences, local Arabs shared a cultural connection to the victorious Muslims, and even Jews welcomed the change, despite having brought on the Muslims' wrath when they rejected Mohammed's claim to be a prophet. The Muslims would bestow the special second class dhimmi status on Jews and Christians, tolerating their religions in recognition of their shared heritage.

Beginning with the Israelites' capture of Jericho and concluding with the most recent conflicts fought by modern Israel, HOLY WARS describes 3000 years of war in the Holy Land, uniquely focusing on pivotal battles or campaigns to tell the story of each historical period. HOLY WARS brings these conflicts to life in a readable work meant for the layman.

To learn more about HOLY WARS and author Gary Rashba, please visit:


from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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