Abu Bakr’s campaign against the Romans and the circumstances surrounding the same is the highlight of this fourth installment of this serial feature on the life and times of the first successor of the Prophet (saws).The previous three installments of this series were published in the April-June 2015 issues of Young Muslim Digest.
However, Abu Bakr thought it fit to take others into confidence. A series of meetings involving senior Muhajirun and Ansar took place in the mosque. History has not preserved but sketchy account of them. But Abu Bakr’s invitation of the Badr participants leads us to believe that it was more of a religious nature than military: expansion of Islamic faith was the objective and not territorial gains. In his opening speech, Abu Bakr also mentioned something about defense of Islam, implying that he had some information about Romans’ planning to move south. It also appears that most of them agreed with Abu Bakr’s suggestion, seconded by `Umar, `Ali, and others that it was a religious duty to open the Syrian front. `Umar had already been thinking on the same lines and said that, once again Abu Bakr had outraced him. He added, in response to Abu Bakr’s suggestion, that it was going to be either victory or martyrdom, and that (either way) it was going to be victory for Islam.
`Abd al-Rahman ibn `Awf added that the Romans being a powerful enemy, Abu Bakr shouldn’t be sending a single large army, but rather, small battalions at a time, one following the heels of another. The smaller fights, with small units would, he suggested, result in they gaining experience without risking (large numbers), and prove to be irksome to the Romans. They could even bag booty to add strength to strength.
The suggestion accepted and the common consensus obtained, Abu Bakr began to gather forces. He sent letters to the Governors of the provinces to seek volunteers for Jihad against the Romans. Despite the fact that the government did not bear the costs of the individual soldiers, the volunteer individuals had to do it for themselves, (as well as for the family they were leaving behind), which included provision, riding animal and weapons, and, despite the fact that the enemy was formidable, with no guarantees of victory, the response was quite encouraging. At Yemen, when Anas ibn Malik read out Abu Bakr’s letter, one of the men in the audience, Dhu al-Kila` stood up, summoned for his horses and weapons and declared that he was marching off right away; except that he pitched a camp outside the town and awaited others to join him. Within days of Anas’ return to Madinah, Dhu al-Kila` arrived with his men followed by a steady stream of groups and individuals from all over Arabia with most headed by their chieftains and leaders.
At Madinah, however, they were in for a big surprise. While the leaders, who were mostly former rulers of independent tribes and regions, had taken care to present themselves in the best form possible: wrapped in brocaded mantles, adorned with gold and jewels, rich footwear, and topped by expensive crowns, they were amazed by the stark simplicity of Abu Bakr, clad in a mantle torn in places and patched up in others. He had no guards around him, and could be seen freely mixing with just about everyone, without any distinction whatsoever. Nothing on him said that he was commanding rule over the entire Arabia. Yet, incredibly simple though he appeared, and humble too, his person inspired awe and commanded respect. Dhu al-Kila` was one of those who were greatly impressed by him and was seen the next day without the trappings and paraphernalia of the ruling class, replaced by a proud goatskin.
The first division to leave Madinah was under the leadership of Yezid ibn abi Sufyan. (He may not be confused with Yezid ibn Mu`awiyyah during whose reign Hussain was murdered). He had around 7000 men under him and was required to head to Dimashq (Damascus). Abu Bakr’s last words to him as he led him by his horse were:
“You are under test; do well, and I shall send more men to you. Remember: a person closest to Allah, is one who is most obedient and honest to Him. Beware of a return to the ways of the Jahiliyyah. Improve yourself, and people will be made to improve for you. Consult the wise and intelligent around you, hiding nothing from them. Be true to your word. Trust your men and do not spy on them. When delegates from the enemy arrive, honor them, but be brief, letting them not tarry long. And, you will find some people in monasteries, devoted to whatsoever they are devoted. Disturb them not.”
Three days after the departure of Yezid, Shurahbeel ibn Hasanah (out to play important roles even after Abu Bakr) was dispatched with an army of 3-4000 men. Taking another route, he was to go to Tabuk, Bulqaa’, and finally to Busra which town he could not subdue, try as he may, because of the fortifications.
Abu `Ubaydah ibn Jarrah’s army was also 3-4000 strong and was to go to Hims. Abu Bakr reminded him that, “in pre-Islamic times they fought with a sense of tribal loyalty, but now it is Islam: seek help from Allah, and you will triumph.” Abu `Ubaydah happened to be the maker of first truce with the Syrians at Maa’ Moaab (waters of Moab) whose people fought but sought a truce. From there he proceeded to Jaabiyyah, keeping himself between the two columns that had marched out before him. Next to leave was an army of around 7000 under the leadership of `Amr ibn al-`Aas. He was to invade areas that are now known as Palestine. He had such distinguished men under him as Harith ibn Hisham, Suhayl ibn `Amr and `Ikrimah ibn abi Jahl. `Abdullahh ibn `Umar was another notable Companion with them.
As feared, territories under Roman control were far from easy to overcome. They began to raise a huge army, but decided to cut the three Muslim battalions that had so far arrived, by first allowing them deep into their territories, then surround them and annihilate them one after another. Having got wind of the plans, and the alarming numbers, Muslim commanders informed Abu Bakr of the situation and requested for reinforcements. He wrote back that numbers did not matter. After all, hadn’t they overcome their enemies in big numbers during the time of the Prophet? Subsequently, however, he yielded and promised to send more troops, reminding them in the meanwhile that their piety will drive fear into the hearts of the unbelievers; they must stop sinning. Today it might sound mere rhetoric.
Apparently, the dire situation in which the Muslims were then in Syria, did need some real material help, arriving quickly. They were in a death trap. But Abu Bakr did have greater trust in Allah and was sure of Divine help if the objectives remained pure, and the heaven dearer than the earth. But, to balance his acts, Abu Bakr chose Hashim ibn `Utbah to lead a new battalion, and made a moving appeal for fighters to join. The speech moved the people and they began to enlist. Hashim was to strengthen Abu `Ubaydah. Yezid had also applied for help and so when Hashim had departed, Abu Bakr was once again up there in the pulpit appealing for more volunteers. It was his trust in Allah that spoke, so that, although the situation was not at all bright, more people responded and Sa`id ibn `Aamir was chosen to lead the campaign. He was to join Yezid.
To give an idea of the spirit of Jihad which aimed at nothing but winning Allah’s pleasure, and, either martyrdom or pitching the tents of Islam in enemy hearts, Bilal’s response may be noted. He wasn’t young at all; but he volunteered to go. This was, however, not the first time. To all earlier requests, Abu Bakr had said, “Bilal, will you abandon me in my old age?” But this time Bilal persisted and he had to give in.
In Syria itself, the four commanders organized a meeting and decided that they were too paltry in numbers to be able to face the huge Roman armies. Withdrawal from areas that had fallen to them, after all the hard fighting, back to southern Syrian borders was the only solution, however unpleasant. This was also the direction they received from Abu Bakr who had remained in close contact. He appointed Khalid as the overall commander of the joint forces.
Already, `Amr ibn al-`Aas was in deep trouble having gone deep into the Roman territories. He saw the futility in advancing any further and avoided to fight the massive army that the Romans had stationed before him. Having informed Khalid, he began to gradually inch back towards the south. Khalid approved of the withdrawal but promised to come to his aid.
While `Amr was retreating, the Roman army was in pursuit. At last, head-on conflict was unavoidable. But Khalid arrived at Ajnadayn just when the battles had begun. The combined Muslim force was around 30,000 men against a much larger and better-equipped and experienced Roman force. But the valor of the Muslim soldiers made the difference. One of them pierced right through the Roman columns, arrived at the tent in which the Roman commander was resting, killed him and brought back his head. That spread panic among the Roman soldiers who fled.
(To be continued)