An Account of the Muslim Conquest of Syria

Niall Christie

Al-Baladhuri, from Kitab Futuh al-Buldan (Book of the Conquests of Lands)

In the face of the Muslim expansion, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius gathered a large army which met the Muslim army at the Battle of the Yarmuk in Syria on 20 August 636. It was a crushing victory which gave Syria to the Muslims. The account of al-Baladhuri (d. c. 892) shows the episodic and personal character of early Islamic historiography but also emphasizes the hostility of Syria to Byzantium and the welcome which the inhabitants of the former province accorded to their invaders. The translation has been edited for clarity.

Al-Baladhuri on the Muslim Conquest of Syria

A description of the battle: Heraclius gathered large bodies of Greeks, Syrians, Mesopotamians and Armenians numbering about 200,000. This army he put under the command of one of his choice men and sent as a vanguard Jabala ibn al-Ayham al-Ghassani at the head of the “naturalized” Arabs[1] of Syria of the tribes of Lakhm, Judham and others, resolving to fight the Muslims so that he might either win or withdraw to the land of the Greeks and live in Constantinople. The Muslims gathered together and the Greek army marched against them. The battle they fought at al-Yarmuk[2] was of the fiercest and bloodiest kind. Al-Yarmuk is a river. In this battle 24,000 Muslims took part. The Greeks and their followers in this battle tied themselves to each other by chains, so that no one might set his hope on flight. By Allah’s help, some 70,000 of them were put to death, and their remnants took to flight, reaching as far as Palestine, Antioch, Aleppo, Mesopotamia and Armenia. In the battle of al-Yarmuk certain Muslim women took part and fought violently. Among them was Hind, daughter of ‘Utbah and mother of Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, who repeatedly exclaimed, “Cut the arms of these ‘uncircumcised’ with your swords!” Her husband Abu Sufyan had come to Syria as a volunteer desiring to see his sons, and so he brought his wife with him. He then returned to al-Madina[3] where he died, year 31,[4] at the age of 88. Others say he died in Syria. When the news of his death was carried to his daughter, Umm Habiba, she waited until the third day on which she ordered some yellow paint and covered with it her arms and face saying, “I would not have done that, had I not heard the Prophet say, ‘A woman should not be in mourning for more than three days over anyone except her husband.’” It is stated that she did likewise when she received the news of her brother Yazid’s death. But Allah knows best.

Those who lost an eye or suffered martyrdom: Abu Sufyan ibn Harb was one-eyed. He had lost his eye in the battle of al-Ta‘if.[5] In the battle of al-Yarmuk, however, al-Ash‘ath ibn Qays, Hashim ibn ‘Utbah ibn Abi Waqqas al-Zuhri (i.e., al-Mirqal) and Qays ibn Makshuh, each lost an eye. In this battle ‘Amir ibn Abi Waqqas al-Zuhri fell a martyr. It is this ‘Amir who once carried the letter of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab assigning Abu ‘Ubaydah to the governorship of Syria. Others say he was a victim of the plague; still others report that he suffered martyrdom in the battle of Ajnadayn;[6] but all that is not true.

Habib ibn Maslamah pursues the fugitives: Abu ‘Ubayda put Habib ibn Maslama al-Fihri at the head of a cavalry detachment charged with pursuing the fugitive enemy, and Habib set out killing every man whom he could reach.

The story of Jabala: Jabala ibn al-Ayham sided with the ansar[7] saying, “Ye are our brethren and the sons of our fathers,” and professed Islam. After the arrival of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab in Syria, year 17,[8] Jabala had a dispute with one of the [tribe of] Muzayna and knocked out his eye. ‘Umar ordered that he be punished, upon which Jabala said, “Is his eye like mine? Never, by Allah, shall I abide in a town where I am under authority.” He then apostatized and went to the land of the Greeks. This Jabala was the king of Ghassan and the successor of al-Harith ibn Abi Shimr.

According to another report, when Jabala came to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, he was still a Christian. ‘Umar asked him to accept Islam and pay sadaqa[9] but he refused saying, “I shall keep my faith and pay sadaqa.” ‘Umar’s answer was, “If you keep your faith, you will have to pay poll-tax.” The man refused, and ‘Umar added, “We have only three alternatives for you: Islam, tax or going where you wish.” Accordingly, Jabala left with 30,000 men to the land of the Greeks.[10] ‘Ubada ibn al-Samit gently reproved ‘Umar saying, “If you had accepted sadaqa from him and treated him in a friendly way, he would have become Muslim.”

In the year 21,[11] ‘Umar directed ‘Umayr ibn Sa‘d al-Ansari at the head of a great army against the land of the Greeks, and put him in command of the summer expedition which was the first of its kind. ‘Umar instructed him to treat Jabala ibn al-Ayham very kindly, and to try and appeal to him through the blood relationship between them, so that he should come back to the land of the Muslims with the understanding that he would keep his own faith and pay the amount of sadaqa he had agreed to pay. ‘Umayr marched until he came to the land of the Greeks and proposed to Jabala what he was ordered by ‘Umar to propose; but Jabala refused the offer and insisted on staying in the land of the Greeks. ‘Umar then came into a place called al-Himar—a valley—which he destroyed putting its inhabitants to the sword. Hence the proverb, “In a more ruined state than the hollow of Himar.”

Heraclius’ adieu to Syria: When Heraclius[12] received the news about the troops in al-Yarmuk and the destruction of his army by the Muslims, he fled from Antioch to Constantinople, and as he passed al-Darb he turned and said, “Peace to you, O Syria, and what an excellent country this is for the enemy!”—referring to the numerous pastures in Syria.

The battle of al-Yarmuk took place in [the Muslim month of Rajab], year 15.[13]

Hubash loses his leg: According to Hisham ibn al-Kalbi, among those who witnessed the battle of al-Yarmuk was Hubash ibn Qays al-Qushayri, who killed many of the “uncircumcised” and lost his leg without feeling it. At last he began to look for it. Hence the verse of Suwar ibn Awfa:

Among us were Ibn ‘Attab and the one who went seeking his leg;

and among us was one who offered protection to the quarter,

Referring to Abu’l-Ruqayba.

Christians and Jews prefer Muslim rule: Abu Hafs al-Dimashqi [recounted] from Sa‘id ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz: When Heraclius massed his troops against the Muslims and the Muslims heard that they were coming to meet them at al-Yarmuk, the Muslims refunded to the inhabitants of Hims the kharaj[14] they had taken from them saying, “We are too busy to support and protect you. Take care of yourselves.” But the people of Hims replied, “We like your rule and justice far better than the state of oppression and tyranny in which we were. The army of Heraclius we shall indeed, with your ‘amil’s[15] help, repulse from the city.” The Jews rose and said, “We swear by the Torah, no governor of Heraclius shall enter the city of Hims unless we are first vanquished and exhausted!” Saying this, they closed the gates of the city and guarded them. The inhabitants of the other cities—Christian and Jew—that had capitulated to the Muslims, did the same, saying, “If Heraclius and his followers win over the Muslims we would return to our previous condition, otherwise we shall retain our present state so long as numbers are with the Muslims.” When by Allah’s help the “unbelievers” were defeated and the Muslims won, they opened the gates of their cities, went out with the singers and music players who began to play, and paid the kharaj.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What images of the protagonists do you get from this text? Who are the heroes?
  2. What values seem to be important to the Muslims, according to the way in which they are presented?
  3. Can this text be seen as trustworthy or not? Why?

  1. Musta‘riba in Arabic, “those who seek to be Arabs”: Non-Arabs who became Arabised in language and culture.
  2. Hieromax.
  3. Medina.
  4. Al-Baladhuri uses the Muslim calendar. The date is 653 CE.
  5. In 630 CE.
  6. In 634 CE.
  7. Arabic: “helpers,” inhabitants of Yathrib who converted to Islam and assisted the original Muslims who emigrated from Mecca.
  8. 638 CE.
  9. A Muslim alms tax.
  10. Asia Minor.
  11. 641-42 CE.
  12. Byzantine Emperor, r. 610-41.
  13. August 636 CE.
  14. Tribute, here meaning the poll tax levied on non-Muslims under Muslim rule. While subject to obligations to their rulers, according to Islamic law non-Muslims under Muslim rule are also entitled to protection and fair treatment from their Muslim rulers.
  15. Arabic: “governor.”


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