History Today eBook: The Second World War

The Caliph Omar: Arab Imperialist, Part II

J.J. Saunders continues the story of the first, and perhaps the greatest, of Islam’s Commanders of the Faithful. The Caliph Omar, after triumphantly laying the foundations of the Arab Empire, fell to a Persian Christian assassin in the year 644.

Upon his accession in the year 634, the Caliph Omar was called upon to make his first and most momentous policy decision. He resolved on the systematic occupation of Syria. At this point the Arabs crossed the line that separated raids from conquest and embarked on that amazing career of imperial expansion, the end of which even Omar could never have foreseen. Given the circumstances, his decision must appear natural and almost inevitable.

All Arabia was by now in motion; whole tribes with their families and flocks were moving northwards, incited by reports of undreamt-of riches and booty; to disappoint their expectations and turn them back to their deserts would provoke a violent explosion against the Muslim chiefs in Medina, a new Ridda in which Islam might finally perish.

The revelation of the confusion and disloyalty in Syria and the parlous condition of the Byzantine army and administration made the prospect of conquest, which a year or two earlier would have seemed wildly chimerical, reasonably favourable. Moreover, while the mass of the Bedouins had as yet scant regard for the beliefs and observances of Islam, Omar, a man of genuine piety, was doubtless moved at the thought of securing, possession of Jerusalem, in Muslim eyes the third holiest city in the world after Mecca and Medina.

It had been the first qibla of Islam, the point to which Muhammad had commanded his followers to turn in prayer until he changed the direction to Mecca, and it was the terminus of the famous “night journey” of the Prophet, when he was miraculously transported thither from Arabia in the twinkling of an eye. More and more Arab warriors poured into Syria; Khalid pushed on towards Damascus and the north, while the Emperor, now thoroughly aroused to the gravity of the crisis, strove desperately to raise fresh troops to beat off the invasion.

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