Review of Madina to Jerusalem: Encounters with the Byzantine Empire, Ismail Adam Patel, Islamic Foundation, 2005, pp 160

Beena Faridi
Beena Faridi is a case worker and researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission with a background in law.

Ismail Adam Patel’s book presents a readable account of the early Muslim expansion into al-Sham (modern day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine) challenging the superpower of the time - the Byzantine Empire. The book covers Muslim activity in al-Sham from 629-637 CE.

In the introduction to the book, Patel observes that history can be used in varying ways. It is akin to a litmus test by which people’s character and lineage are judged. History is used to justify actions or stake claims. History or at least the interpretation of history can also be used to undermine other people’s identity, heritage and belief systems. The Muslims’ rapid expansion into al-Sham is a case in point. Orientalists, Patel argues, have portrayed the early Muslims as marauding savages brandishing the sword in one hand and the Qur’an in the other, destroying all who came in their way. This view has left a legacy in the form of the islamophobia, which manifests itself in society today.

By looking at this period of history in detail and examining how the Muslims achieved their victory and why the population of the Byzantine Empire abandoned their former rulers, Patel hopes to prove that it was the justice and morality of the Muslims, and not the sword, which ultimately won hearts and minds.

Chapter One sets the scene giving a brief history of the Byzantine Empire and then tracing the careers of the last three emperors before the dawn of Islam. Prior to the advent of Islam, there were two superpowers: the Persian Empire and the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the eastern wing of the Roman Empire. By 300 CE, the Roman Empire had become so vast that it was partitioned into two and by 363 CE, the empire had two capitals with Rome as the capital of the western wing of the empire and Constantinople, the capital of the eastern wing. By the year 320 CE, the Roman Emperor of Byzantine, Constantine, converted to Christianity and it became the official religion of the Empire. After almost 300 years of Christian rule the Byzantine Empire’s defences began to weaken as it began to break up into various religious factions. The neighbouring Persians seized this opportunity and in 614 BC, the Persian army conquered Jerusalem. The Persian Empire ruled for 8 years (614 to 622 CE) and thereafter with dwindling influence until 627 CE. By 627 CE the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated Persia and re-conquered Jerusalem. Patel also describes relations between the Byzantines and the Jews. The Byzantine-Christians placed heavy constraints on the Jews. They would not allow them to occupy positions in government or testify against Orthodox Christians. Jews were even banned from entering the Holy City. When the Persians conquered Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines, with the help of the Jews, the Jews seized the opportunity for revenge for the suffering that had long endured and took part in the slaughter of Christians.

Chapter Two examines the Muslims’ first encounters with the Byzantine Empire such as the sending of a letter to Heraclius by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) inviting him to accept Islam until the appointment of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) as caliph of the nascent Muslim state. In the second year of the hijri (the Islamic calendar) the Muslims were victorious against the Makkan polytheists in the Battle of Badr and a truce was agreed. This made their position more comfortable and offered some respite from warfare. The Prophet (peace be upon him) began to send letters to neighbouring chiefs, tribal leaders, kings and emperors to widen the call of Islam. Patel explains that the Prophet had been commanded by Allah (glory be to Him) through the Qur'an to proclaim His message to the world:(5:67, 15:94) and it was this calling which was the true motive of initial Muslim encounters with the Byzantine Empire and not a lust for booty. Therefore in early 628 the Prophet (peace be upon him) sent Harith ibn Umar with a letter to the Ghassan chieftain of Busra in al-Sham inviting him to join Islam. Ghassan was a large, mainly Christian, powerful tribe in Syria and Jordan. When the Ghassanid leader read the letter he was so angered by its content he murdered the Muslim envoy in cold blood. Even by the standards of that era, the murder of an envoy on a peaceful mission was a heinous act and the Muslims had no choice but to retaliate. As the Ghassanids were closely aligned with Byzantines any confrontation with them meant a confrontation with the Empire itself. The book vividly describes the meeting of the Byzantines and the Muslim army at Muta in a battle which proved inconclusive and a further meeting at Tabuk where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) led the army himself and at the conclusion of which, the Byzantines retreated.

Skirmishes between the Byzantines and the Muslims continued after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the selection of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) as caliph. The turning point was the Battle of Yarmulk in which a Muslim army defeated a Roman army ten times its size. The battle is described in detail in Chapter Three as well as the Muslim army’s entry into Jerusalem. Patel is keen to emphasise that the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, far from being brutal or destructive, was peaceful and ushered in an age of tolerance and religious freedom. In Chapter One, Patel describes the arrival of Emperor Heraclius into Jerusalem after his army re-conquered the city from the Persians. He entered the city with an entourage of royal guards, monks, dignitaries and bishops. He was dressed in purple silk and his horse was decorated in gold. In fact his entry was so ostentatious that the Patriarch of Jerusalem told Heraclius that he should show humility when in the Holy City. The entry into Jerusalem of the Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) could not have been more different. He entered the city with only his servant and a donkey. When the Patriarch of the city was showing Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) around the city it became time for the caliph to pray. The Patriarch of the city suggested he pray in the Holy church of Sepulchre. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) refused stating he feared future Muslims might try to follow his footsteps and pray in the church and disturb the Christian worshippers. The Caliph also overturned the ban on Jews entering Jerusalem and 70 Jewish families returned against the wishes of the Patriarch of the city.

Finally Chapter Four explores the reasons behind the Muslims’ success, posing two major questions: what motivated the Muslims to advance into al-Sham? Secondly, what were the reasons behind their success? Patel outlines the common misconceptions and criticisms and then attempts to debunk them one by one. Criticisms include: 1) Islam was spread by the sword 2) The Muslims were motivated by greed 3) The Muslim military successes are belittled attributing their success to the weakness of the Byzantines 4) The Jizya

Patel quotes a study by Courbage and Fargues who found that by the end of the First Century after Muslim conquests, only 6% of the population of al-Sham were Muslim. This represents 250,000 out of a total population of 4 million. Patel argues that if force had been used to ensure people converted to Islam, a much higher figure would be expected.

Critics also suggest that Muslims wanted to conquer al-Sham in order to emigrate there and enrich themselves with its resources. Patel observes that there is no evidence of a mass migration of Arabs into al-Sham during or immediately after the conquests. He also notes that non-Muslim Greco-Syriac and Arab sources contain no accounts of looting, pillaging by the Muslims forces to substantiate the 'lust for booty' theory. Instead Patel cites numerous accounts of the Muslims’ contempt for wealth- none more so than the Muslim leaders themselves.

The first generation Muslims were not motivated by greed; rather they considered it their duty to educate the people of the world about the message of Islam. It was this calling which motivated the Muslims. However, da’wah (the call to Islam) had to be done according to the way prescribed by Islam and this was to be peaceful and non-coercive (Appendix D also provides an explanation of Jihad).

Some commentators attribute the Muslim armies’ surprising success to the weakness of the ailing Byzantine Empire. Heraclius alienated the population and religious authorities by marrying his niece; a union that was deemed by many to be incestuous. Heavy taxes unsurprisingly made the government hugely unpopular. The late payment of civil servant wages led to a decline in social order, justice, economics and a general weakening of the ability to govern. Patel, however, points out that the Byzantine Empire was burdened with these same problems when it defeated the Persian Empire.

So how did the Muslims overcome the Byzantine Empire? Patel suggests that under Islamic rule, the people of al-Sham enjoyed a greater degree of religious freedom, economic relief, justice and recourse to the law, as well as the lifting of unfair taxes. That is why the Islamic conquest of al-Sham and its subsequent rule lasted so long.

Patel states that for many rural and towns-people, Islamic Rule represented deliverance from Roman tyranny. He quotes Michael the Syrian, a famous chronicler of the time:

'Seeing the wickedness of the Byzantines, God brought the Children of Ishmael from the south to redeem them...If the Syrians had some misfortunes (at the hands of the Muslims) these were nothing in comparison to the great blessing of their redemption from the harshness and the wickedness of the Byzantines'.

It was the equitable policies of the Muslims which made their rule attractive. The land of the occupied territories remained with the original inhabitants. The possession of the conquered lands by private individuals was restricted. Thus, in al Sham, the conquered land became public property. Imperial estates in the possession of Byzantine officers were handed back to the natives. This was revolutionary - for the first time in the Syrians’ history they became independent landlords, free to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Patel contrasts this to life under Byzantine rule, where land was mainly owned by the state or its soldiers, who allowed only subjects to cultivate land under the harshest conditions. The state expected revenue in the form of fixed taxes. It was also common for the emperor to reward faithful officers with estates causing significant resentment among the poor. There were very few peasant holdings and even those that existed were liable to extremely harsh taxes and had to provide the military with recruits. If tax collectors failed to collect the tax, they had to make up any shortfall from their own funds. This led them to resort to severe methods to extract tax from peasants. Patel quotes Libanius who tells of whole villages which were evacuated because they could not pay the tax. The emperor could evict owners and tenants without due process and confiscate land or reallocate them. Farm workers were effectively the slaves of the farm owners. A ‘traders tax’ was imposed on trades-men such as bakers, grocers, barbers or cobblers. If they defaulted on the payment of the tax, they could be flogged, tortured, thrown to the lions or put to death.

Under Muslim rule, people had freedom to retain their religion, language, customs and even judicial powers within their own communities. Regarding personal law, communities were free to adjudicate with their own co-religionists according to their own religious beliefs. A non-Muslim was given equal rights and could even file a case against a Muslim. Peasant farmers felt free enough to lodge a complaint to Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) against the Muslim army. A Christian farmer from al-Sham complained that the Muslims had marched through his farm and in the process had destroyed his crops. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) compensated him for his loss with ten thousand dirhams.

All this was in return for the payment of the jizya, which if you were liable to pay, in most cases amounted to less then the zakat (tax) the Muslims had to pay. Jizya is often cited as evidence of Muslims’ contempt towards people of other faiths. Patel defends the concept of ‘jizya’ both in this chapter and in the appendix of the book which gives a more detailed explanation of the concept as well the religious basis in Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The jizya, he explains, is tax levied on subjects of the Islamic sate who are of different faiths but who claim protection and social welfare from the state. In return for the tax, it is mandatory for the Muslims to safeguard the lives of the non-Muslims, their property, livestock, produce and lands. It also exempts non-Muslims from military service and ensures they have autonomy in personal laws. The tax is only to be levelled at able-bodied men over a certain age. Women, children and those incapable of work were exempt. The tax cannot be excessive; the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

'Whoever oppresses a non-Muslim subject or taxes him beyond his capacity I shall be the opposite party to him in litigation'

The view that Muslims and Islam are inherently violent is prevalent in the Western world with leading figures, politicians and commentators openly discussing the problem of Islam and how it must be reformed. Even Pope Benedict XVI approvingly quoted the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II:

“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”

Therefore an examination of this period of history is extremely relevant. Patel tries to right many wrongs in this book. Although it is not aimed at academics, it is still informative, provides a useful introduction to this dynamic period of history and helps to promote a better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Anyone want to buy the Pope a copy?

Beena Faridi

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source: Volume 3 Issue 2,
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