Madina to Jerusalem
Encounters with the Byzantine Empire
Sovereign states make treaties, and when necessary, conduct wars. Ismail Patel's timely study provides a readable account of the practice of the first Islamic state in the pursuit of peace and its recourses to military action. His work is specifically concerned with the extension of the state's boundaries in the region north west of the Hejaz in one momentous decade 628 - 638 - a period that began with the first Muslim overtures to the Arab client tribes allied to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine); witnessed the triumphant entry of the Prophet to his home city, Mecca, in 632; the dispatch of the young commander Usama ibn Zayd to al-Sham in 633, soon followed by the Prophet's demise; the pivotal Battle of Yarmuk in 636 that led to the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, and the capitulation of Damascus and Jerusalem to Muslim forces soon after. The twentieth century historian Arnold Toynbee notes that "the Arabs put an end to a Greek ascendancy in the Levant that, by 633 had been maintained for 963 years".
'Madina to Jerusalem' explains why the Arab Christian tribes entered the fold of Islam. It also describes how non-Muslim communities were able to preserve their dignity and identity within the Islamic polity. The author thus touches on issues at the heart of the Islamic conception of a tolerant society and demonstrates how practices such as jizya, the tax on non-Muslims, far from being degrading and inhuman as orientalists would like us believe, were in fact noble and fair. It also provides interesting examples of the early divergences between normative Islam - that is the teachings of the Qur'an and the sunnah - and the practice of eminent Muslims in this earliest of epochs. The study provides a better understanding of the association of the Jewish tribes of the day with Jerusalem, thus informing contemporary debate on 'inalienable' and exclusivist claims to the land of Palestine.
The western orientalist narrative of the rapid expansion of early Islam draws on several theories. In one, the Arabs were spurred by an 'insatiable' appetite for booty: conversion to Islam offered opportunities for acquiring loot - "this combination of allurement with coercion succeeded in deflecting the Arab insurgents from rebellion to foreign conquest" (Toynbee in 'Mankind and Mother Earth'). The orientalist grandmaster Leone Caetani proposed that the expansion was driven by conditions of famine within Arabia, thus forcing "the Arab race" out of the peninsular Arabia: "driven by hunger and want, to leave their inhospitable deserts and overrun the richer lands of their more fortunate neighbours" (quoted by T.W. Arnold in his 'The Preaching of Islam', Second Edition).
Ismail Patel's work puts lies to this narrative. He demonstrates that it was a desire to convey the message of Islam through peaceful means that led to the first contacts with the Ghassanid tribe in Al-Sham, clients of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. The killing of Muslim emissaries and delegations led to Muslim armies being dispatched to punish the offenders:
"In early 7/628 the Prophet (peace be on him) sent Harith ibn Umar with a letter to the Governor of Busra in al-Sham. Harith ibn Umar never reached Busra. On his way he was met at a place called Mu'ta by Shurahbil ibn Amar, a chieftain of the Ghassanid tribe, who became so infuriated with the content of the letter that he murdered the Prophet's messenger in cold blood. Even by ancient standards this constituted a gross violation of acceptable practice. The news of Harith's death was received with great sorrow in Madina. During the same period, the Prophet (peace be on him) sent fifteen men for the purpose of teaching Islam to Dhat al-Talh north of Madina towards the outskirts of al-Sham. Here too the messengers were put to death in cold blood. These murders led the Prophet to rally his Sahaba (Companions) and march against Mu'ta…Thus in early 8/629, three thousand Sahaba volunteered to avenge the deaths of their brothers in Islam".
The battle of Mu'ta was not entirely successful for the Muslim army. In spite of outstanding acts of bravery and chivalry well described in the book - the commander Zayd ibn Harith died in battle and also two deputies, J'afar ibn Abi Talib and Abdullah ibn Rawwah - the Muslims had to stage a defensive retreat. This success emboldened Heraclius to assemble a large force of the Byzantine army along the Empire's northern frontier at Tabuk and so threatened Medina. Notwithstanding the extreme heat and the imminent harvest, the Prophet rallied a large force in 9 A.H. to undertake the 700 mile march. Again the encounter was inconclusive: "Before the Prophet reached Tabuk, the Byzantines had taken stock of the situation and decided it was not the time to confront the Muslims. Hence they retreated into their own territories. The Prophet had no intention of pursuing the Byzantines. His objective, to secure the frontiers had been achieved without loss of life".
While the Prophet was in Tabuk, the Byzantines attempted to entice Ka'ab ibn Malik, who had stayed back in Medina, to defect. The threat to Medina remained real, and to maintain vigilance, the Prophet appointed the twenty year old Usama ibn Zayd to lead an armed expedition that would "cover the territories of Balqa and al-Darum, in the land of Palestine. His duties included gathering intelligence, monitoring Byzantine manoeuvres and trying to win over the local inhabitants".
None of the Prophet's military campaigns against the Byzantines were motivated by the prospects of booty, or to force conversion to Islam. Nonetheless, Muslims were not daunted from taking arms in response to murderous aggression, or for launching reconnoitering expeditions to take stock of potential threats. The Prophet's own aversion to any form of militarism and disproportionate aggression was so strong that it stamped itself on his closest companions. 'Madina to Jerusalem' documents the advice of Abu Bakr as Caliph to Usama when he embarked three weeks after the Prophet's death: "Avoid treachery, depart not in any way from the right, mutilate none, kill no children, women or aged men. Injure not, nor burn date or palm trees, which serve men or beast. Slay not any flocks or herds or camels save for sustenance. If the monks submit leave them alone". He was later to advice another commander "fight your enemies with righteousness and never act cowardly".
Skirmishes with Byzantine forces continued and Muslim settlements living along the border were losing life and lifestock. Ismail Patel places emphasis on the process of consultation that took place under Abu Bakr prior to the mobilisation of a Muslim army for a major campaign - a salutory lesson for our own twenty-first century misguided jehadis who are so ready to act arbitrarily. He also documents a piece of real-politik: "while the Muslims were in the vicinity of Fihl, at a place called al-Yakusha [after the defeat of the Byzantines at Ajnadayn but before the decisive Battle of Yarmuk] they were brought the devastating news of Abu Bakr's death. The news was kept from the forces until the victory of Fihl". Some years later, Caliph Umar was upset when he saw the ostentatious style adopted by his four military commanders - who had gained victory in the pivotal battle of Yarmuk (15/636): "When Umar saw them in their fine, expensive attire he dismounted picked up pebbles from the ground and started pelting them. He said, 'How quickly have you turned from your senses…how quickly has gluttony lead you astray".
The Prophet was instructed by revelation to institute the jizya, a tax to be paid by non-Muslims living under the Islamic dispensation. The amount varied from region to region. Thus during the Tabuk campaign, the tribes he encountered were invited to Islam or pay jizya: "the tribes of Jarba and 'Adhura, [who] offered to pay 100 dinars per annum, and [to] the people of Maqna [who] offered to pay in goods one fourth of the fish they caught, horses, coats of mail and fruits. The people of Ayla paid one dinar per person, making it 300 dinars in all".
The practice of jizya, and the terminology 'dhimmis' (the protected ones) for those who pay this tax, is oft cited as evidence of Islam's contempt of non-Muslims and its oppressiveness. For example Charles Moore recently claimed that "under Islam, Christians and Jews, born into their religion, have slightly more rights than apostates. They are dhimmis, second class citizens who must pay the jizya because of their beliefs. Their life is hard" (The Daily Telegraph, 14 December 2004). Ismail Patel corrects these numerous misconceptions and shows that the jizya was conceived in Islam solely as a defence tax. He reminds readers of the incident when the jizya was returned because the Muslim armies had to be withdrawn and could no longer provide defence. Thomas Arnold in his masterly 'The Preaching of Islam' notes "the tax was only to be levied on able-bodied men and not on women or children. The poor who were dependent for their livelihood on alms and the aged poor who were incapable of work were also specially excepted, as also the blind, the lame, the incurables and the insane, unless they happened to be men of wealth. This same condition applied to priests and monks, who were exempt if dependent on the alms of the rich, but had to pay if they were well-to-do and lived in comfort. The collectors of the jizya were particularly instructed to show leniency, and refrain from all harsh treatment or the infliction of corporal punishment, in case of non-payment".
Muslims never bore hatred towards Christians and Jews - and 'Madina to Palestine' provides numerous examples of that period's utterly inhuman actions of Christians and Jews towards each other, contrasted to the open heartedness of Muslims towards both communities.
Thomas Arnold states that the jizya was exempted from those non-Muslims who served in the Muslim army: "such was the case with the tribe of al-Jurajimah, a Christian tribe in the neighbourhood of Antioch, who made peace with the Muslims,promising to be their allies and fight on their side in battle, on condition that they should not be called upon to pay jizya and should receive their proper share of the booty. When the Arab conquests were pushed to the north of Persia in AH 22, a similar agreement was made with a frontier tribe, which was exempted from the payment of jizya in consideration of military services". Arnold also provides the exact words spoken by the Muslim commander Abu 'Ubaydah when jizya was returned to cities in Syria, in the circumstances described above: "We give you back the money that we took from you, as we have received news that a strong force is advancing against us. The agreement between us was that we should protect you, and as this is not now in our power, we return to you all that we took. But if we are victorious, we shall consider ourselves bound to you by the terms of our agreement ". He notes that "in accordance with this order, enormous sums were paid back out of the state treasury and the Christians called down blessings on the heads of the Muslims, saying 'May God give you rule over us again and make you victorious over the Romans; had it been they, they would not have given us back anything, but would have taken all that remained with us".
Ismail Patel describes some of the conduct of seventh century Jews and Christians towards each other in the ebb and flow of power politics in the region of Palestine and al-Sham. These incidents provide an insight into the emergence of guilt complexes of the future. When the Persian emperor Chosroes captured Jerusalem in 614, Theophanes, the historian, recorded that "at the hands of the Jews, they killed many people in it. Some say 90,000. The Jews, according to their means, bought the Christians and then killed them." The Christian monk Antiochus Strategos provided a contemporary account of the Persian entry into Jerusalem and the help received from its Jewish inhabitants, "Thereupon the Jews rejoiced exceedingly and they approached the edge of the reservoir and called to the children of God (Christians), while they were shut up therein, and said to them, 'If you would escape from death, become Jews and deny Christ, and then you shall step up from your place and join us….when the people were carried into Persia, and the Jews were left in Jerusalem, they began with their own hands to demolish and burn such of the holy churches as were left standing". As a gesture of goodwill and a token of appreciation for assisting the Persians gain Jerusalem, the Jews were given administrative powers in Jerusalem.
Citing Michael Avi-Yonah's 'A History of the Holy Land', Ismail Patel notes that 'even the Church of Resurrection was not spared'. When the Byzantines deposed the Persians in 630, Heraclius banished the Jews from Jerusalem and 'something like a general massacre followed' in the provinces. The old Judea-Christian animosities, mercifully less bloody but still redolent with symbolism, survive to this age. For example 'The Tablet' on 16 October 2004 reported that Christian clerics in Jerusalem "have called on the local authorities to prevent Jews from spitting at them"; a student of an orthodox yeshiva was punished by the authorities for spitting at a cross carried by an Armenian clergyman and "Bishop Nourhan Manogian told an Israeli newspaper that Israeli leaders must speak out about such 'daily' abuse" (Inigo Gilmore, reporting in the Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2004).
When the Muslim forces entered Jerusalem in 15/636 there was no bloodbath. Ismail Patel records that 70 Jewish families found immediate accommodation within Jerusalem: "thus Jerusalem was transformed into a pluralist city for the first time". The author adds, "with the modern zionist attempts to Judaize Jerusalem, it is important to realize that the Muslims did not liberate Jerusalem from the Jews but from the Christians". Umar's conduct in Jerusalem has served as the standard for Muslims in their sense of respect of other faith communities. On one occasion when the Bishop was giving him a tour of Jerusalem, the time for prayer approached: "the Bishop suggested that Umar perform the prayer in the Church of the Sepulchre but Umar with foresight and humility declined. He feared that if he performed the salah in the church, future generations of Muslims might on the pretext of following in his footsteps, also enter the Church to perform salah and that this could lead to inconveniences, harassment and possible confiscation of the church".
Jerusalem was to remain a city in which the religious freedoms and dignity of Christians and Jews was safeguarded under Muslim rule from 636 to 1917, except for the twelfth century when the Crusaders took control. General Allenby, in the course of World War I defeated the Ottoman forces around Jerusalem, and on his entry in December 1917 famously declared "The Crusades have ended now". After thirty years of British Mandate, on 26th July 1948 western Jerusalem was declared Israeli territory, with complete annexation taking place in 1967 after the Six Day War.
'Madina to Jerusalem' serves as excellent background reading at a time when modern Israel lays claim to the city of Jerusalem. A claim on the grounds of a historical dispossession over a millennia ago is clearly ludicrous. Much effort has thus been directed to seek bibilical sanction, with reference to God's covenant to the Children of Israel. However even here it is clear that Divine covenants are not unconditional. In the Islamic tradition, when Abraham prayed to God that his offspring be entrusted with leadership of mankind, God's immediate response was to make this conditional - "My promise is not within the reach of the evildoers" (Qur'an, 2:124). Similarly the gift of the 'promised land' to Jews was conditional - it could not be at the cost of injustice to others or after disobedience to God's guidance. The Bible states explicitly that entitlement to land is predicated upon good stewardship and respect for the resident alien - in Exodus 22:21. The creation of Israel in 1948 was the culmination of a secular political project with no theological justification and little support from the rabbinate: "virtually the entire religious leadership of Jews in nineteenth century Eastern Europe considered Theodor Herzl, the creator of Zionism, and his creed to be anathema" (Michael Prior in 'The Tablet', 31st July 2004).
'Madina to Jerusalem' is not only of interest for its content but from a sociological perspective too. Ismail Patel graduated from the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1985, and serves as editor of the 'Al-Aqsa' journal. It is the work of a Muslim who has lived in Britain most of his adult life, and the scholarship and interests so impressively displayed in this book is a pointer of the creative potential of this new hyphenated Muslim-British identity. There is a creative tension at work because young scholars and activists like him are living on a unique interface - part of the western world/British community yet also rooted in, and loyal to, the Islamic tradition/worldwide Muslim community.
M. A. Sherif