The First of the Four: Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq (d. 13H) – Part 5


The concluding account of Caliph Abu Bakr’s campaign against the Romans and the circumstances surrounding the same, as also of his nomination of his successor prior to his own passing away is the highlight of this fifth installment of this serial feature on the life and times of the first successor of the Prophet (saws).The previous four installments of this series were published in the April-July 2015 issues of Young Muslim Digest.


Hiraql (Heraclius), the Roman emperor, had placed himself at a safe distance far north of Syria, but kept himself updated of the progress. He had ordered the raising of a very large army and was able to draw in a quarter million fighters. The army began to move towards the combined army of Muslims now at Yarmuk. They had their priests and monks reciting the Bible in their midst. Muslims had such prominent figures in their ranks whose very presence was considered a fortune: Abu Sufyan, Mu`adh ibn Jabal, Miqdad ibn al-Asward, Abu Dardaa’ and Abu Hurayrah. They were urging them to seek Paradise. Truce negotiations failed. The Romans offered the Muslims 10 Deenars and suitable clothing to every soldier if they would return plus an equal amount the next year. But the simple reply they received was, “We have not come for these things.”

A fierce battle, that widely swung this and that way, took place. Muslims were outnumbered 1 to 6. But, although they fought hard, three times their right-wing retreated to the rear, to be stoned and clubbed by their women in the tents, to shame them into returning. Although the left-wing fared better against the onslaught of the right-wing Romans, they had almost given to flight (`Amr’s own daughter was shaming them from the tents meant for women at the extreme end, while other women yelled: “If you do not defend us, you are not our husbands!”), when Khalid’s intervention saved the day for them. He made a sudden appearance with his own soldiers and began cutting down the surprised Romans like hay stack. Six thousand fell. That spread fear among the rest. Having routed one flank, Khalid next chose a hundred horsemen and led a fierce charge directly into the central command where a hundred thousand Roman soldiers were placed. The charge was so fierce that the Romans thought a huge army must be behind him and so fled. Many had chained themselves to each other so that when one fell, many others also fell. Adverse winds and dust storm are also blamed as the cause of confusion. Muslims kept attacking the retreating army even after night fell spreading greater confusion. In their panic, many fell into the nearby river, others fled as far as Fahl and Dimashq. In the end, they lost a hundred thousand against some three thousand martyrs. Gibbon’s description should make interesting reading:

“From the provinces of Europe and Asia, fourscore thousand soldiers were transported by sea and land to Antioch and Caesarea: the light troops of the army consisted of sixty thousand Christian Arabs of the tribe of Gassan. Under the banner of Jabalah, the last of their princes, they marched in the van; and it was a maxim of the Greeks, that for the purpose of cutting diamond, a diamond was the most effectual. Heraclius withheld his person from the dangers of the field; but his presumption, or perhaps his despondency, suggested a peremptory order, that the fate of the province and the war should be decided by a single battle. The Syrians were attached to the standard of Rome and of the cross: but the noble, the citizen, the peasant, were exasperated by the injustice and cruelty of a licentious host, who oppressed them as subjects, and despised them as strangers and aliens73…A speedy messenger soon returned from the throne of Medina, with the blessings of Omar and Ali, the prayers of the widows of the prophet, and a reinforcement of eight thousand Moslems.  In their way, they overturned a detachment of Greeks, and when they joined at Yermuk the camp of their brethren, they found the pleasing intelligence, that Caled had already defeated and scattered the Christian Arabs of the tribe of Gassan…  In the neighborhood of Bosra, the springs of Mount Hermon descend in a torrent to the plain of Decapolis, or ten cities; and the Hieromax, a name which has been corrupted to Yermuk, is lost, after a short course, in the Lake of Tiberias. 74 The banks of this obscure stream were illustrated by a long and bloody encounter.* On this momentous occasion, the public voice, and the modesty of Abu Obeidah, restored the command to the most deserving of the Moslems.  Caled assumed his station in the front, his colleague was posted in the rear, that the disorder of the fugitive might be checked by his venerable aspect, and the sight of the yellow banner which Mahomet had displayed before the walls of Chaibar.  The last line was occupied by the sister of Derar, with the Arabian women who had enlisted in this holy war, who were accustomed to wield the bow and the lance, and who in a moment of captivity had defended, against the uncircumcised ravishers, their chastity and religion. 75 The exhortation of the generals was brief and forcible: “Paradise is before you, the devil and hell-fire in your rear.” Yet such was the weight of the Roman cavalry, that the right wing of the Arabs was broken and separated from the main body. Thrice did they retreat in disorder, and thrice were they driven back to the charge by the reproaches and blows of the women. In the intervals of action… Four thousand and thirty of the Moslems were buried in the field of battle; and the skill of the Armenian archers enabled seven hundred to boast that they had lost an eye in that meritorious service. The veterans of the Syrian war acknowledged that it was the hardest and most doubtful of the days which they had seen.  But it was likewise the most decisive: many thousands of the Greeks and Syrians fell by the swords of the Arabs; many were slaughtered, after the defeat, in the woods and mountains; many, by mistaking the ford, were drowned in the waters of the Yermuk; and however the loss may be magnified,76 the Christian writers confess and bewail the bloody punishment of their sins.77 Manuel, the Roman general, was either killed at Damascus, or took refuge in the monastery of Mount Sinai.

[Footnote 73: I have read somewhere in Tacitus, or Grotius, Subjectoshabenttanquamsuos, vilestanquamalienos.    Some Greek officers ravished the wife, and murdered the child, of their Syrian landlord; and Manuel smiled at his undutiful complaint.]

[Footnote 74: See Reland, Palestin. tom. i. p. 272, 283, tom. ii. p. 773, 775. This learned professor was equal to the task of describing the Holy Land, since he was alike conversant with Greek and Latin, with Hebrew and Arabian literature.  The Yermuk, or Hieromax, is noticed by Cellarius (Geograph. Antiq. tom.ii. p. 392) and D’Anville, (GeographieAncienne, tom. ii. p. 185.) The Arabs, and even Abulfeda himself, do not seem to recognize the scene of their victory.]

[Footnote 75: These women were of the tribe of the Hamyarites, who derived their origin from the ancient Amalekites. Their females were accustomed to ride on horseback, and to fight like the Amazons of old, (Ockley, Vol. i. p. 67.)]

[Footnote 76: ‘We killed of them,’ says Abu Obeidah to the caliph, ‘one hundred and fifty thousand, and made prisoners forty thousand,’ (Ockley vol. i. p. 241.) As I cannot doubt his veracity, nor believe his computation, I must suspect that the Arabic historians indulge themselves in the practice of comparing speeches and letters for their heroes.]

[Footnote 77: After deploring the sins of the Christians, Theophanes, adds, (Chronograph. p. 276,) does he mean Aiznadin? His account is brief and obscure, but he accuses the numbers of the enemy, the adverse wind, and the cloud of dust. (Chronograph. p. 280.)]

[Footnote *: Compare Price, p. 79.  The army of the Romans is swollen to 400,000 men of which 70,000 perished. – M.]

 (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, vol.5, Project Gutenberg)

The Yarmuk battle was the toughest the Muslims had fought. Their victory was a kind of miracle. Western sources place Roman numbers as 400,000, although Muslims sources say they were 240,000. Yet the ratio was great – 6:1. They faced a variety of soldiers: Greek, Italian, Armenians, Arabs and others. There was no reason they should have won. Or, was it because the Romans were too many: a mass of men that ran helter and skelter at the first strike spreading confusion? That doesn’t seem to be the case either. Initially they fought very well and were quite successful both at the left as well as the right flanks; especially the left flank. Muslims were on the run. They had to be put to shame by their women at the rear. The huge cavalry’s speedy flight despite the presence of central command, which must have been Roman, is difficult to explain.

Whatever! The next day was a day of rejoicing Monday the 22nd, Jumada II, 13H; but only for a short while. It was announced that Abu Bakr was dead. They were stunned. How many of them had not planned to shake hands with him, and report to the beloved leader that he hadn’t placed his trust in the wrong man? To be appreciated by others was one thing. To win a smile from Abu Bakr was another. His caliphate had lasted a little over two years; but what a change those years wrought!

Abu Bakr had been unwell for fifteen days after having taken a cold bath. Fever never left him. When someone suggested that a doctor be brought, he remarked, “The Doctor has given me the illness. He says He does what He will.” He consulted the senior Companions and decided that `Umar was, perhaps, the best to be placed in his position after him. When they had all independently agreed to it, he stood up in the mosque and inquired whether all were agreeable to `Umar’s appointment. He remarked that he did not wish the Ummah to fall into strife after him and got the nomination announced by `Uthman, and a general public consent was also obtained.

On the last day of his life, he asked `A’isha what day it was that the Prophet had died. She answered that it was Monday, and that they were entering into Monday. His age also matched with the Prophet’s: sixty-three by the moon calendar. He instructed that new shrouds may not be used to wrap his dead body: new clothes are deserving of the living. His final instruction was that his body be washed by his wife Asma’ bint Umays. His another wish was that he be buried next to the Prophet. At last, he said, “O Allah, deal me death while a believer, and join me with the righteous,”

And was gone.