The Sword of Allah - Khalid Bin Waleed (Ral)

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Chapter 27: The Perilous March

 Part III: The Invasion of Iraq

 

Page: 5

But the army of Eastern Rome was still a powerful instrument for the waging of imperial wars and, after the Persian Army, the most efficient and formidable military machine in the world. Its legions were well-equipped and ably led, and could still strike terror into the hearts of the peoples over whose lands they marched. Like any great imperial army, it was not one national unit but a heterogeneous collection of contingents from many peoples inhabiting many lands. In its ranks served Romans, Slavs, Franks, Greeks, Georgians, Armenians, Arabs and tribes from far-flung regions. These soldiers manned garrisons in the cities of Syria, most of which were fortified.

Syria, like Iraq, was partly an Arab land, especially in its eastern and southern parts. The Arabs had been there since pre-Roman times; and when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Empire in the early part of the fourth century A.D., these Arabs also embraced Christianity. But, the Arabs of Syria were people of no consequence until the migration of the powerful Ghassan tribe from the Yemen to Syria, which occurred a few centuries before Islam. For some time the Ghassan fought the Roman garrisons in Eastern Syria. Then as the Romans came to realise and value their martial spirit and warlike traits, they made peace with them and agreed to their living in Syria as a semi-autonomous people with their own king. The Ghassan Dynasty became one of the honoured princely dynasties of the Empire, with the Ghassan king ruling over the Arabs in Jordan and Southern Syria from his capital at Busra. The last of the Ghassan kings, who ruled at the time of Khalid's invasion, was Jabla bin Al Aiham. This man shared with Adi bin Hatim, who has been mentioned earlier in this book, the distinction of being the tallest Arab in history. His feet too touched the ground when he rode his horse! 1

This then was the Syria, and this its political and military condition, that greeted the Muslim army in the early weeks of the thirteenth year of the Hijra.

The man who commanded the first serious military venture into Syria was a namesake of Khalid, viz. Khalid bin Saeed-a man whose military ability was just the opposite of Khalid's! Towards the end of 12 Hijri (beginning of 634) Abu Bakr placed him at Taima, some distance north of Madinah, with a detachment which was to act as a general reserve.

While at Taima, it occurred to Khalid bin Saeed to invade Syria; and for this project he sought the Caliph's permission. Abu Bakr had no intention of attempting the conquest of Syria with a small body of men, especially under an indifferent and untried general. But the Muslims knew little about the detailed military situation in Syria and Abu Bakr decided to let this operation proceed as a reconnaissance in force. He therefore wrote and gave Khalid bin Saeed permission to enter Syria; but cautioned him against getting involved in any serious hostilities which might threaten his withdrawal into the safety of Arabia.

Khalid bin Saeed set out with his small force, entered Syria and ran headlong into some Roman forces. The Roman commander in contact with the Muslims-a skilful tactician by the name of Bahan-lured the unwary Muslims into a trap and executed a pincer movement to encircle them. At this, Khalid bin Saeed lost his nerve and fled, leaving most of his men behind. Luckily for the Muslims, Ikrimah bin Abi Jahl was present at this action; and taking command of the situation, he extricated the Muslims from a blunder that was about to turn into a major tragedy. Ikrimah was able to save the Muslims, but inevitably the expedition bore the stigma of defeat. Khalid bin Saeed was now in disgrace, and Abu Bakr made no secret of his contempt for the man's pusillanimity and lack of skill. (Later, however, this man was allowed to join the Muslims in Syria, and he retrieved his honour by dying in battle.)

The exact location of this action is disputed. Some historians suggest that it took place at Marj-us-Suffar, south of Damascus, but it is unlikely that the expedition could have got that far before being seriously engaged by the Roman army. The benefit of this abortive venture to the Muslims, however, was that it made it clear to the Caliph that the invasion of Syria was not a matter to be taken lightly.

On return from the annual pilgrimage at Makkah in February 634, Abu Bakr issued a call to arms for the invasion of Syria. All was now quiet on the Iraq front. Khalid's campaign in Iraq had proved an unqualified success: it not only expanded the political boundaries of the Muslim State but also filled the coffers of Madinah. The Muslims therefore came to feel that if they could win against the formidable and much-feared Persians, why not also against the Romans who were not so fearsome as an imperial military power? Moreover, the promise of the new religious movement had to be fulfilled and its destiny achieved. Islam had come as a blessing for all mankind; and the message had to be conveyed to all mankind.

1. Ibn Qutaiba: p. 644.