Expansion of the Muslim dominion during Khilafat-e-Rashida – Part I


Fazal Malik


The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah is of paramount importance in the history of Islam. It set the stage for the expansion of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and set the precedence for the expanding boundaries of the Muslim dominion in North Africa and Asia Minor during the time of Khilafat-e-Rashida. Although many Muslims initially viewed it with bitterness, the result was a great triumph.

The treaty allowed some of the greatest Arab warriors and enemies of Islam to witness its peaceful nature and embrace it. These included the Holy Prophet’s uncle, Hazrat Abbasra bin Abdul Muttalib; Hazrat Khalidra bin Waleed – the Sword of Islam; and Hazrat Amrra bin al-Aas – later to be conqueror of Egypt. As a result of the treaty, the Meccan leadership, which had banned Muslims from entering the city, welcomed Hazrat Muhammad Mustafasa as their head in less than two years.

Shortly after the victory of Mecca, the Holy Prophetsa passed away. His demise was monumental on many fronts. The Muslims were now without their Prophet, and the Arabian Peninsula without a king. Allah guided the Muslims towards an able leader and Hazrat Abu Bakrra was elected as the Khalifa. It was a historic moment as never before in their history had the Arabs pledged allegiance to one person in unity for a reason other than faith. Every clan, every tribe had remained independent before the advent of Islam, and here they stood as brethren, one to another.

Ridda Wars

With the news of the demise of the Holy Prophetsa, the political situation of Arabia began to change. Four claimants of prophethood had started instigating the Arabs who were geographically removed from Medina to revolt. Most powerful of them was Musaylima who had raised an army of 40,000. Siding with a false prophetess – Sajah bint al-Harith – he was planning a hostile takeover of Medina.

When the news of unrest and rebellion caused by the false prophets reached Medina, Hazrat Abu Bakrra had already dispatched the army to the Syrian frontier.  A short background is needed to understand why this occurred at such a sensitive time.

The enmity between the Byzantine and Persian Empire is old, with the attacks on the Arabian soil dating back to early 5th century, about 100 years before Islam came into being. With the advent of Islam, the attacks became more focused and intense.

Upon return from Hajj in 629 AD, the Holy Prophetsa learnt about the possibility of an attack on Medina from the Syrian front. He dispatched a party of 15 people to enquire about the situation, all of whom were martyred. Upon learning of this, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched a messenger to the Roman Emperor enquiring what provoked this atrocity. Unfortunately, this messenger – Al Harasra – was intercepted at the point of Mu‘tah, captured and killed by the local governor. In response, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched an army of 3,000 men, who, by the sheer grace of Allah, forced the opposing army of over 150,000 soldiers to retreat; however, the Muslims suffered a great  loss.

Three years later in 632 AD, the Holy Prophetsa was informed by credible sources that the Romans were gathering for a battle with the Muslims. Under the command of Usamara, the Holy Prophetsa dispatched an army to confront the Byzantines at the point of gathering. The army had not completely cleared the border of Medina when the Holy Prophetsa passed away and the advancing troops halted.

Once Hazrat Abu Bakrra was elected as the Khalifa, he immediately carried out the last command of the Holy Prophetsa.  While the army was on its mission, the news of rebellion reached Medina. Suppression of the rebellion and safety of the Muslim state was of utmost importance. Musaylima had started killing Muslims in far off lands, such as Yemen and Bahrain. In addition to the rebellion by the four false prophets, some Bedouin tribes had formed a small army to attack Medina. All these rebellions had to be dealt with decisively and quickly. With his faith in God and expert military planning, the first Khalifa of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakrra struck and quashed all evil forces, pardoning the ones who sought forgiveness and punishing those who committed treason.  It would be worth the mention that not all tribes had rebelled; among the rebellious were many who remained loyal to the government at Medina and refused to fight.

During the insurgency, the Persian and Roman Empires openly sent troops to fight alongside the rebels, especially in Yemen and Bahrain. Once peace was established in Arabia, Muslim troops were deployed on the borders with the Persian and the Roman Empire, in order to reduce the chance of further attacks. This did not deter the two empires and they continued their hostilities, constantly disturbing the internal peace of Arabia. These occasional territorial aggravations were about to escalate into a war.

By the summer of 634 AD, the forces of Byzantium had gathered in a place known as Ajnadain with a mission to attack and destroy Muslims. The exact location of Ajnadain is unknown, but it appears to have been west of Jordan, not far from Jerusalem. The Byzantine army outnumbered the Muslim army by a ratio of 3:1, but when the Sword of Allah, Hazrat Khalidra bin Waleed  began executing his orders from the Khalifa to protect the Muslims and Islam from an onslaught of the Byzantine army, Allah granted a decisive victory to Muslims, expanding the Muslim governed lands further North, deeper in the Middle East. The war was far from over as Heraclius could not accept the loss and planned to attack the Arabian Peninsula in the very near future.

Before the news of victory could reach Hazrat Abu Bakrra, he departed from this world to rest at the feet of his Master, the Holy Prophet of Islam, Hazrat Muhammad Mustafasa

A background note on territorial expansion of Islam

Regarding the expansion of Islam during the period of Khilafat-e-Rashida, William Muir, a critic of Islam and a Christian historian, admits that “obligation to enforce Islam by a universal crusade had not yet dawned upon the Muslim mind.”  This is a strong observation that has eluded the modern historian, who conflates the current day situation with the pristine conduct of Khulafa-e-Rashideenra.

This situation is further exasperated by some Muslim historians who find glorification of Islam in battles rather than the true teaching of the Holy Prophetsa, which is to win the hearts of the people. They ignore one of the most basic injunctions of the Holy Quran (Ch.2: V.256); turning a blind eye to the pain when Hazrat Umarra remarked, “I desire that between Mesopotamia and the countries beyond, the hills shall be a barrier so that the Persians shall not be able to get at us, nor we at them … I would prefer the safety of my people to thousands of spoils and further conquest.” (William Muir, The Caliphate, p. 120).

A person expecting a sharp rise in conversions to Islam during the 7th century will be awarded with disappointment, as less than 10% of the population was Muslim in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, well into the 10th century (Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, pp. 46-47 [1991]). The reasons for conversion are various and will be discussed towards the end of the article.

Two wings of a bird

The two superpowers that remained a constant threat to Islam and Muslims in Arabia, Byzantine (Romans) and the Sasanian (Persians), were not about to back down. After having lost at the hands of the Muslim army, while meddling with Arabian state affairs at Bahrain, the Persians were gathering the armies to strike a decisive blow to Muslims once and for all. 

The call for help from the Byzantine front was received by Hazrat Abu Bakrra on his death bed who commanded Hazrat Umarra to send reinforcements immediately.  The Emperor Heraclius had left Constantinople (Istanbul) and was heading to Damascus in a bid to crush the Muslims. Having been offered an olive branch several times, he had always chosen the sword, hence forcing the Muslims to defend themselves. 

Over a period of several months, lasting most of 636 AD, the Muslims forces fought the enemy in Damascus and Jordan, with the decisive victory being delivered at the Battle of Yarmuk, the river that marks the border between modern day Syria and Jordan. It was a tough battle which proved victorious for Muslims who, in addition to winning Syria and Damascus, successfully pushed the Byzantine army out of the heart of their Empire. 

The Patriach (pope) of Jerusalem surrendered the city to Hazrat Umarra himself.  Hazrat Alira was in-charge of negotiating a peace treaty with the Christians, who were guaranteed freedom of faith, among other civil liberties that did not exist before. Some time after taking Jerusalem, Hazrat Umarra invited the Jewish families expelled from the city by the Byzantines to live in Jerusalem once again. He himself took the initiative of restoring the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Romans.

The Byzantine Empire did not look favourably upon any non-Orthodox Christians.  Theirs was the only way to salvation. Those with other faiths were regarded as criminals and termed as the “children of Satan” (Alexander A Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, p. 148 [1952]). The era of Muslim rule was gratifying for the inhabitants of Emesa (Homs) and Damascus, Palestine and Syria.  The recognition of Monophysite Christians, Nestorian Christians, Orthodox Christians, Samaritans and Judeans as having a legitimate religion and equal civil and religious rights was a matter of great joy for them.  This resulted in the Quranic injunction that teaches many paths to salvation (Ch.2: V.213-214) and does not permit religious persecution.

The threat, however, was far from over. Shortly after Byzantine forces were driven out of Syria, the Muslims learnt of massive military activity in Egypt, one of the provinces of the Byzantine Empire.  After the demise of Heraclius, his son and his widow – Empress Martina – had started a military buildup with the intent of attacking Palestine and Syria. Amrra bin al-Aas was granted permission to attack the troops and stop them in Egypt. This was neither an easy task nor an opportune time as a plague had broken out in Syria (Plague of Amwas) and had thinned the Muslim forces by about 25,000.

With a small army of about 4,000 people, Muslims embarked on a daring expedition. In a peaceful takeover of eastern Egypt, they found two major allies – the Coptics and the Jews in their battle against the oppressors. In a little over a year, Egypt was won and the last of the Byzantine forces that threatened to annihilate the Muslims was overpowered.

While the Byzantine war was raging on the Northern front, the Persian Empire was busy reinforcing its troops. The Muslims had entered a peace agreement with the Persians twice, but that did not stop them from causing constant agitation in the Muslim State. The Persian king – Yazdegerd III – continued inciting people in the surrounding territories to revolt against Medina. Observing the situation, Hazrat Umarra sent a delegation to meet the king at Midian. The king received the delegation but humiliated them in the court. After repeated violations of the peace treaty, Hazrat Umarra decided to fight them. The first battle that ensued was that at Tustar, which Muslims won. The decisive battle took place at the point of Nihawand where the Muslim army of 30,000 faced a Persian army of 150,000!  The Persians were fortified in a castle; the Muslim commander, Hazrat Numanra, tactically drew them out of their fortified position towards a narrow passage between two mountains. This proved to be fatal for the Persians. With no army to resist and the king in hiding, Persia came under Muslim control in a matter of days. 

Within a decade, during the Khilafat of Hazrat Umarra, the forces that threatened Medina were neutralised; for the time being, an attack on the Arabian soil would prove difficult. The people under the Muslim dominion found themselves content with freedoms that did not exist before. Jews and Christians could worship in public, maintain their own religious buildings and have their own religious organisations. In return for being excused from military service, which was expected of all Muslims, they had to pay a tax, the jizya, as their contribution towards the defense of the state. Such communities became known as the dhimma (protected people) who enjoyed unconditional legal and military protection by the Muslim Government. For any Muslim government to violate the protected status of such dhimma was a serious crime. The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa was recorded as saying: “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the Day of Judgment.”

In 644 AD, Hazrat Umarra was martyred by a Persian slave with a personal grudge. The electoral council chose Hazrat Usmanra as his successor.

Primary sources used for this article:

Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, History of Islam. Darussalam, 2000.

Ahmad ibn Yahya Al-Baladhuri, Origins of Islamic State (Kitab futuh al-Buldan). Columbia, 1916.

David Nicolle, The Great Islamic Conquests AD 632-750. Osprey, 2009.

William Muir, The Caliphate – Its Rise, Decline and Fall. Edinburgh, 1924.

N Saifi, An Outline of Early Islamic History. Tabshir, Rabwah.

Shibli Naumani, Al-Farook. Dar-ul-Ishaat (Urdu Translation).

Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari (Tarikh al-rusul wal-muluk).Suny, 1993.


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