By Irfan Husain
20 February 2016
WHEN Muslim armies boiled out of the Arabian Desert and won a string of stunning victories in the seventh century, believers were convinced that they owed this success to divine intervention.
But apart from their speed, tactics and zeal, the Muslim armies benefited from other factors as well. In his brilliant book In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland recounts the fall of the Persian and Roman empires and the rise of Islam, and describes this convergence of events as the end of the ancient world.
In 541, around a century before the great Muslim conquests, a deadly plague swept across much of Rome’s eastern empire centred on Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and Iranshahr, or the Persian Empire. In those days, Egypt was Rome’s granary, and grain ships from Alexandria fed millions.
But that year, these ships brought more than grain: in the holds were rats that bore plague-carrying fleas. This deadly pestilence soon began ravaging cities, towns and villages across the empire. From Constantinople, the epidemic spread swiftly to Europe, Mesopotamia and Persia. Although few records were kept, it is estimated that a third of the population of the lands visited by the plague died in a particularly horrible way.
Even after the pestilence had subsided, it continued to cast a long shadow: the price of labour rose, tax collection fell sharply, and it became difficult to find recruits for the Roman legions. Entire regions had been denuded of their populations, and in once-prosperous villages, wolves howled in the wilderness.
But this was not the only crisis Rome faced: possible environmental changes in the steppes of Central Asia caused the Huns to seek better land. As they moved into Eastern Europe, they pushed other tribes into the western provinces of the Roman Empire, putting great pressure on the stretched legions. How to explain these multiple crises? Most people believed that they were due to God’s anger.
In 600 AD, the pestilence returned to Jerusalem and its surrounding areas, once again decimating the population. But the tribes of Arabia had remained insulated from the ravages of the plague, with the desert serving as a buffer zone. One contemporary Roman described the situation thus:
“[While] once countless military units had dwindled in number, the plague, that ally of war, had not so much as touched the rancorous tribes.”
As a result of falling tax revenues and manpower, the defences along the Arabian Desert were virtually abandoned, with the Romans focusing on their traditional foe, the Persian Empire. In 606 AD, the Persians besieged the Roman fort city of Dara, and after taking it three years later, advanced on Anatolia and Jerusalem. By 615, all of Syria and Palestine were in Persian hands.
Heraclius, the Roman emperor, decided on a risky counterstroke in which he led a task force north across the Armenian mountains into Persia. Here, after a series of victories, he entered into a secret agreement with one of Khusrow’s generals who killed the Persian emperor, and signed a peace agreement with the Romans, thus ending the Great War in 628.
This titanic struggle had greatly drained both mighty empires, a factor that contributed significantly to the Arab victory over a Roman task force near Gaza in 634 AD. Settlements, unprotected by Roman legions and decimated by the plague, surrendered in quick succession. Traditionally, Rome had dealt with Arab raiders by paying them off, but this time, it was different.
A third factor contributing to the defeat of the Roman armies was the virtual absence of the Ghassanids from the field. This was a powerful Arab Christian tribe that had prospered over the centuries, acting as an auxiliary force for Rome. In return for patrolling the borders of the desert, Ghassanid rulers were given titles and gold.
The tribe followed an early strain of Christianity known as Monophysitism, and this brought them into conflict with the orthodox Byzantium church. Ultimately, they were defeated by the armies of Islam, and many moved into the Levant. Once a powerful force in the region, few remember their name now.
However, to one keen student of Islamic history, the lesson from the fate of the Ghassanids was clear: Osama bin Laden, in a recording sent to Al Jazeera, declared that if Muslims were to work for the benefit of foreign patrons, “We would also be like our forefathers, the Al Ghassaniah. The concerns of their elders were to be appointed officers for the Byzantines, and to be named kings in order to safeguard the interests of the Byzantines by killing their brothers of the peninsula’s Arabs. Such is the case of the new Al Ghassaniah; namely, Arab rulers.”
Specifically, Bin Laden was accusing the Saudi ruling family of being toadies of the Americans, and serving their interests at the cost of their own people. Now, as the Americans gradually withdraw from the Middle East, will the House of Saud fade into history, much as the Ghassanids have done?