FROM A BEDOIN TENT
At a time when Arabia was sitting content with an obscure fate, before the advent of Islam, at a time when the isolated and barren deserts were buried in centuries of isolation, immediately above this region a struggle was taking place that was to shape history. Two great powers, Byzantine and Iran, two emperors who shared the cradle of civilization between them, had begun to fight.
Byzantium fed the Christian soul and Persia was steeped in Zoroastrianism; after attacking Damascus, an important center for the Byzantines, the Sassanids invaded Jerusalem, the Holy Land. After days of killing and looting, the cross on which Jesus Christ was thought to have been crucified was taken to the Sassanid capital Medain. After this Sassanid attacks captured Byzantine territory in Asia Minor, Egypt and even in the Balkans.
The Byzantines, who ruled over the eastern flank of the Roman Empire, that is, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Philistine and Egypt, for 11 centuries, were seriously shaken. Emperor Heraclius struggled to overcome the weaknesses that the empire found itself in, both in the military and the administration. With reformations in the military and administration, and with financial support provided by the Church, the empire began to recapture territory from the Sassanids, bit by bit. They invaded the Persian city of Gence in retaliation for the looting of Jerusalem, and destroyed the Zoroastrian temple there.
Having regained the former borders of his country the emperor returned to Constantinople. The patriarch, religious leaders, the senate and the people received the victorious Heraclius with a great ceremony. The emperor, who had carried out military, administrative and social reforms and who had defeated the Sassanid enemy celebrated his victory by bringing the cross back to Jerusalem. Heraclius was the first Byzantine emperor to visit the Holy Lands.
The emperor now expected to go down in the annals as one of the most powerful statesmen. He was preparing for the throne with the joy of one who has reinstated the respect of the glorious state. Heraclius planned to wear the emperor’s crown upon his return from Jerusalem.
While still in Jerusalem an ambassador was caught; the ambassador states that he had come with an important message and begs to be brought before the Byzantine emperor. The messenger is spurred on by the message he has brought. The news comes from south of Damascus, Jerusalem or even Petra; it comes from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
In the envoy’s hand is a piece of parchment: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This letter is from Muhammad the slave of Allah and his Apostle to Heraclius, the ruler of the Byzantines. Peace be upon him who follows the right path.
“Furthermore, I invite you to Islam; if you become Muslim you will be safe and Allah will double your reward, but if you reject this invitation to Islam you will be committing a sin by misguiding your subjects. I recite to you Allah’s statement:
“‘O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him that we erect not from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than God.’ If then they turn back, say ye: ‘Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to God’s Will).'” (3/64).
The emperor’s pleasure evaporated. The weight of the message overshadowed the joy of Byzantium, and the emperor was confused. He knew that in the Bible there were indications that a prophet was to be sent to the world.
Heraclius sent all his intelligence troops into action. It was true; the desert of Arabia resounded with the joy of a Prophet who had been sent to all people. The new belief which had been born in Mecca had been renewed in Medina and a powerful state had been formed. The Prophet had signed a treaty with those in Mecca, and in order to spread his message to people he was sending diplomatic letters to leading statesmen.
The Byzantine emperor took this invitation seriously. However, thinking that the greatest power in the world could not emerge from such a geography, from a land that throughout history had never hosted any civilization, he made no move. In this way history brought Byzantium and Islam head to head.
Heraclius first met the Muslims soldiers in Mute. Heraclius did not take these troops, whose effect on the social formation had not yet been perceived, seriously. First some diplomatic meetings were held. Then the armies met and there was a difficult battle…
The threat that surrounded the Byzantines did not end with the death of the Prophet. The Muslims who quickly conquered Arabia began to knock at the gates in Syria, Palestine and Jordan. An event, the like of which had never been seen, had occurred. The strongest army of the era had met with an army that had had no organized battle experience, yet the former was forced to retreat. When the Muslims broke down the gates of Ajnadayn, Syria and Palestine the Byzantines were shocked. They waited for Yarmuk to take their revenge. They prepared to drive the Muslim army back to the desert, back to where they had come from. However Yarmuk dashed all the Byzantines’ hopes; Heraclius’ army was seriously defeated. Syria was now the Muslims. Heraclius returned with head bowed to Constantinople.
The Muslims made an amazingly rapid advance in the Byzantine cities. Basra, Damascus, Balebek, Humus and Hama, then Antioch, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Egypt fell into the Muslims hands. Both the fall of Jerusalem, the center of the Christian religion and the fall of the Byzantine granary, Egypt, were great blows to the empire.
The success of the Muslims on the land was taken to the sea to defeat the great naval power of Byzantium. The victory at sea gave the Muslims the courage to besiege Constantinople. Before half a century had passed since the death of the Prophet the Muslims seemed to be forming a center of the world. The islands of Cyprus, Rhodes and Chios and the Kapidag Peninsula, which was next to the Byzantine capital, were conquered. Important bases from which to conquer Constantinople had been captured.
In one generation the Muslims had taken a journey from their Bedouin tents to a position from which they could challenge the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The soldiers on this journey were none other than the close friends of the Prophet. Many Companions, led by Abu Ayyub, found themselves at the Constantinople Ramparts.
The seeds that had been sown by these Companions were to later emerge and break down the last ramparts of the Byzantines, and the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was to become Istanbul, the seat of the Muslim caliphate.