The Genesis of Empire

The Genesis of Empire

Immediately after the Prophet’s death, all the powerful tribes in the Arabian Peninsula that had come to a security agreement with him broke away. The Muslim armies saw this as a declaration of war and began the Apostasy Wars of reconquest (called the Ridda wars in Arabic). One of the most interesting aspects of these wars is how much the whole concept of power had changed in the region.

The tribal rebellions in the peninsula, while carried out by pagan leaders eager to restore their independence in their home regions, were seen by the Muslim camp, and justifi ably so, as the renunciation of these tribes’ contract with the Prophet himself. But they were carried out in a novel fashion.

Four of the six tribal leaders who broke away from the Muslims actually declared that they were prophets of God, thus proving how deeply Muhammad’s message had penetrated the furthest reaches of Arabia. Abu Bakr, in his new role as commander-in-chief of the Muslim troops, sent brilliant but mercurial generals, such as Khalid ibn al-Walid, to force these tribes to submit once more.

The Expansion into Iraq

Even while the Apostasy Wars were continuing in the Arabian Peninsula, Abu Bakr began other offensives in the region. Relying on the general Muslim consensus to wage wars both against the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires, he sent armies northward to enforce the caliph’s authority. Abu Bakr died but two years after the Prophet. His successor, Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–644), took up the challenge.

Again the maverick general Khalid ibn al-Walid was responsible for the fi rst victories in Iraq. In 634, thousands of Arab tribesmen did battle with the occupying Sassanian force, whose soldiers were exhausted from their all-out wars against the Byzantines. The Sassanians fought badly, and the Muslim armies won the first round.

In 636, the most important battle of the Iraq campaign took place at Qadisiyya, near Najaf, where the Muslims won an overwhelming victory, despite the heavy odds. In 637, the Arab armies occupied the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon in Iraq and established the fi rst mosque in the country. And in 642, the “Victory of Victories” at Nahavand brought to an end the Sassanian hold over Iran proper. Iraq and Iran were now under Muslim rule.

The Islamic conquest was made easier because the Sassanian Empire was on its last legs, and a weakened Byzantine Empire would prove unable to hold Syria. Furthermore, the native populations, who chafed under their imperial misadministration, had little to lose and quite a lot to gain by cooperating with the Muslim armies.

It has been argued that both tribesman and townsman had no real interest in who ruled them, so long as they were taxed fairly and lived in security (Hourani 1991, 24). However, a change in power may also have been in the interest of the local Christians and Jews, who may have hoped to benefi t from a new army and administration open to new philosophies and methods of rule and whose legal and religious codes were still receptive to change.

In addition, Islamic law strictly prohibited attacks against civilians and noncombatants, and Muslim warriors must have thus seemed lenient in comparison to other foreign occupiers that had ravaged both Iraq and Syria-Egypt. Finally, the Muslims realized that the land was for the taking; they were not going to damage property that had become theirs through war.