ACCESSION OF 'OMAR - REINFORCEMENTS FOR AL-'IRAK.
CAMPAIGN UNDER ABU 'OBEID AND AL-MUTHANNA
AUGUST TO MARCH 13-14 A.H. / 634-635 A.D.
ON the morrow after Abu Bekr's death, 'Omar ascended the pulpit, and addressed the people assembled in the Mosque. "The Arabs," he said, "are like a rebellious camel, and it pertaineth to the driver which way to lead it. By the Lord of the Ka'ba - even thus will I guide you in the way that ye should go."
The first act of the new Caliph was, in fulfilment of Abu Bekr's dying behest, to raise a fresh levy for Al-Muthanna. A standard was accordingly planted in the Court of the Mosque, and urgent proclamation made for soldiers to rally round it. Then followed the oath of fealty to 'Omar, taken by all who were in and around the City. Meanwhile, so great a fear of Persian prowess had fallen on the people, that none responded to the call. Seeing this, Al-Muthanna, who was still at Medina, harangued them in a stirring speech. He told them of his victories, the endless plunder, the fair captives, and the fruitful fields of which they had already spoiled the enemy; "and the Lord," he added, "waiteth but to give the rest into your hands." Inflamed by his discourse, and stung by reproaches from 'Omar, men began at last to offer. The first to come forward was Abu 'Obeid, a citizen of At-Taif; then, following him, numbers crowded to the standard. When a thousand were thus gathered, they said to 'Omar: "Now choose thee, either from Koreish or from the men of Medina, one of the chiefest to be our commander." "That I will not," replied the Caliph; "wherein lies the glory of a Companion but in this, that
he is the first to rally round the Prophet? But now ye are backward; ye come not to the help of the Lord. Such as be forward to bear the burden, whether light or whether heavy, have the better claim. Verily I will give the command to none other but to him that first came forth." Then turning to Abu 'Obeid
"I appoint thee over this force, because thou wast the first to offer; and in eagerness for battle is the Arab's glory." With this emphatic declaration, he presented to him the standard; but, at the same time, earnestly enjoined upon him ever to take counsel with the other Companions and associate them with himself in the conduct of affairs. So the force started for Al-'Irak. Now also 'Omar removed the ban against the employment of the once Apostate tribes, and bade Abu 'Obeid to summon to his standard all, without distinction who since their apostasy had made a good profession. Al-Muthanna, with lightened heart, hastened back in advance of Abu 'Obeid, and re-entered Al-Hira after the absence of a month.
During this period further changes were transpiring at the unhappy Court of Persia. Prince and Princess succeeded one another amidst bloodshed and rebellion till at last a royal lady, Buran, summoned the famous Rustem from Khorasan, and by his aid established herself upon the throne. Proclaimed supreme, the energy of Rustem was soon felt. The nobles rallied round him; great landholders rose against the invaders, and the whole country speedily cast off the Arabian yoke. Two columns were despatched from Al-Medain, one under Jaban to cross the Euphrates and advance on Al-Hira; the other under Narsa to occupy Kaskar on the nearer side. The people flocked to their standard, and the position of the Muslims grew precarious.
Al-Muthanna called in his forces, still all too few, abandoned Al-Hira to the enemy, and falling back on the desert road to Medina, there awaited Abu 'Obeid. But he had some time to wait. Swelled by Bedawi tribes on the way, and burdened by their families, it was a month before he came up. After a few days' repose, Abu 'Obeid took command of the combined force, and attacking Jaban, put him to flight. Then crossing the Euphrates, he surprised Narsa, strongly posted by a royal date-grove near Kaskar, routed his army and took his camp, in which, with much
spoil, was great store of rare dates reserved for royal use. These were distributed among the army, as common food for all. With the fifth, Abu 'Obeid sent some of them to 'Omar: "Behold," he wrote, "the fruit wherewith the Lord hath fed us, eaten only by the kings of Persia; wilt thou see the same with thine own eyes, taste it with thine own lips, and praise the Lord for his goodness in giving us royal food to eat?" The unfortunate Delta, prey to alternate conquest and defeat, again acknowledged Muslim sway. The neighbouring Chiefs brought in their tribute and, in proof of loyalty, made a feast of good things for Abu 'Obeid. He declined to partake of it, unless shared equally with his soldiers. A further supply was furnished, and the army sat down with him to the repast.
Enraged at the defeat, Rustem assembled a still larger force under another great warrior Bahman. The Imperial banner of panthers' skins was unfurled, and an array of elephants sent with the army. Before this imposing host, the Arabian army again fell back and, recrossing the Euphrates took up ground on the western bank. Bahman encamped on the opposite shore. The field of battle was not far from Babylon, and a bridge of boats spanned the river. Bahman gave Abu 'Obeid the option of crossing unopposed, and thus of choosing either bank for the impending action. His advisers sought to dissuade him from quitting their more advantageous ground. But Abu 'Obeid made it a point of honour;"Shall we fear death more than they?" he cried, as he gave the order at once to cross. They found the ground upon the farther side confined; and, though they were under 10,000, there was little room to manoeuvre, and nothing but the bridge to fall back upon. The unwieldy elephants, with jingling bells and barbaric trappings, spread confusion among the Arab cavalry. The riders, however, dismounting, went bravely at them, and tried, with some success, to cut the bands of the litters, and drive them from the field. Abu 'Obeid himself singled out the fiercest, a white elephant with great tusks, and rushed at it sword in hand. Vainly endeavouring to reach some vulnerable part, the huge beast caught him with its trunk, and trampled him to death. Consternation seized the ranks at the horrid spectacle. One after
another, the captains whom Abu 'Obeid had named to take command in case of disaster, were slain, and the troops began to waver.
Just then a soldier, appalled at the fate of his leaders, ran to the bridge, and crying,Die, as your Chiefs have died, or conquer,cut the first boat adrift. Retreat closed, the panic spread. The Muslims, hemmed in, were driven back upon the river. Many leapt into the deep swift stream, but few reached the other shore. At this eventful moment Al-Muthanna rushed to the front. Backed by a few heroic spirits, among them a Christian chief of the Beni Tai, he seized the banner and, planting himself between the enemy and the bewildered Arabs, called out that he would hold the ground till all had passed over. Then he chided the author of the calamity, and commanded the bridge to be restored. "Destroy not your own selves," he cried; "retire in order, and I will defend you." While thus bravely holding the Persians at bay, the thrust of a lance imbedded the rings of his armour in a deep and dangerous wound. Heedless of it, he stood to his ground, endeavouring to calm the panic-stricken force, but in vain. The confusion increased, and before order could be restored, vast numbers had perished in the river. At last the bridge repaired, a remnant escaped across; but 4000 were swept off by the flood, left dead upon the field, or borne wounded away. Of the new levies, some 2000, stung with remorse, fled from the terrible field back to Arabia; and Al-Muthanna, again assuming the command, was left with only 3000 of his men. After the battle, Bahman was on the point of crossing the river to follow up his victory. Had he done so, it would have fared badly with Al-Muthanna and the disheartened remnants still holding their ground on the opposite bank.
But fortunately at the moment, news reached Bahman of a revolt at Al-Medain; and so, relinquishing his design, he hastened away to the distracted capital. Al-Muthanna fell back upon Ulleis, farther down the river, and fixing headquarters there, bravely defended his early conquests amongst a people now not unfriendly to the Muslim cause. Jaban, unaware of Bahman's hasty recall, fell into Al-Muthanna's hands and, with his followers, was beheaded. Things, no doubt, looked dark; but a hero like Al-Muthanna was not one to despair.
As on his first advance, so now he sought to recruit the diminished ranks from kindred tribes about him; and, before long, regained a firmer footing.
'Omar received with calmness the unhappy tidings. Abu 'Obeid's levies kept on their flight till they reached home; and some who belonged to Medina returning thither, covered their faces with shame. The Caliph spoke comfortably to them thus:"Verily, I am a defence to every believer that faceth the enemy, even if trouble overtake him. The Lord have mercy on Abu 'Obeid, and be gracious unto him. Had he survived, and taken refuge on some sandy mound, I surely would have been his advocate and his defender." Mo'adh, famous as a reciter of the Kor'an was among those who fled. Shortly after, in the course of public recitation he came to the verse: "Whosoever in the field shall give his back to the enemy (excepting again to join in battle), or shall turn aside unto another party, verily he draweth the wrath of God upon himself; his refuge shall be hell-firean ill ending!"1 and he lifted up his voice and wept. 'Omar addressed him kindly: "Weep not, O Mo'adh, thou hast not turned aside unto another party; thou hast turned aside to none but unto me." Such was the spirit of these Muslim heroes, even in defeat. The reverse had no other effect than to nerve the Caliph to redoubled effort.
The fresh cry for a levy en masse soon resounded all over the Peninsula. But reinforcements in response would have been too late to help Al-Muthanna if (fortunately for Islam) earlier succour had not reached him.
For the previous call was still drawing. Levies from every quarter daily reached Medina, eagernow the ban, against Apostasy was removedto show the sincerity of their repentance, and share in the rewards of victory. Each band as it came, besought 'Omar to send them to the favoured land of Syria. But the late victories in Syria had made him easy in that direction; and every available man must now be hurried forward to Al-'Irak. A brave levy raised under the banner of Jarir, urged that their ancestral relations were all with Syria; but 'Omar was firm, and at last reconciled them to set out at once for Persia by the promise that they should have one-fourth of all the royal fifth of
1 Sura viii. 16.
1 Sura viii. 16.
booty taken there. The fugitives also hastened back, seeking to retrieve their honour. But the most remarkable was a Christian tribe of the desert, which, without detriment to their faith, threw in their lot with the Muslims, and brought a contingent to their help. Thus rapidly reinforced, Al-Muthanna was soon stronger than ever, and ready for offensive movement. His troops were massed at first on the edge of the Arabian desert, near Khaffan. The women and children (for the practice was now common of carrying with the army house and home) were placed in security at a distance behind; some were even left with friendly citizens in Al-Hira, although, since the last retreat, the city had been reoccupied by a Persian Satrap. Al-Muthanna had also a trusty follower in hiding there, to give him notice of what was passing in the City.
From the spy, Al-Muthanna now learned that, matters having been settled at the Capital, a great army was in motion against him. Sending an urgent message to Jarir, now close at hand, to hurry on, he marched forward to Al-Buweib on the western branch of the Euphrates and there, close by the future site of Al-Kufa, and on ground approached by a bridge, awaited the enemy. 'Omar had cautioned him not again to risk his men by crossing the river before victory was secure; so he suffered the enemy undisturbed to defile their troops across the bridge. The Persians advanced in three columns, an elephant defended by a company of footmen at the head of each and all with tumult and barbaric din. It was the fast of Ramadan; but under special dispensation the troops had been strengthened by a full repast. Al-Muthanna, on his favourite charger (humorously called the Rebel from its docility in action), rode along the lines, and exhorted his soldiers to quit them like men: "Your valour this day shall be a proverb. Be still as death, and if ye speak one to the other, speak it in a whisper. None amongst us shall give way this day. I desire not glory for myself, but glory for you all." And they answered him in like words; for he was beloved by his men.
The signal was to be the Tekbir, or cry of God is most great, repeated thrice; then, at the fourth, the general advance. But Al-Muthanna had barely shouted the first,
when the Persian myrmidons bore down; and the nearest column broke before them. Al-Muthanna pulled his beard in trouble. Calling an officer, he bade him hasten with this message to the wavering corps: "The Amir sendeth greeting, and saith, Ye will not this day shame the Muslims!" They gave answer, "Yea, we will not!" And, as the broken ranks closed again in serried line, Al-Muthanna smiled approvingly. The battle raged long and equally. At last, Al-Muthanna, seeing that a desperate onset must be made, rode up to the Christian chief, and said: "Ye are one blood with us; come now, and as I charge, charge ye with me." The Persian centre quivered before the fierce onslaught, and as the dust cleared off it was seen to be giving way. The Muslim wings hitherto outflanked, now took heart, and charged. Then the Persian army fell back, and made for the bridge. Al-Muthanna, however, swept before, and cut them off. In despair, they turned on their pursuers. But the fiery zeal of the Arabs, though a handful in comparison, beat back the forlorn charge. "The enemy," says an eye-witness, "driven before us, were brought up by the river and finding no escape, re-formed and charged again. One cried to our Leader to hold his banner back; My work, he answered, is to move the banner on. So forward we drove, and cut them up, not one reaching even to the river bank." Al-Muthanna reproached himself afterwards with having closed the bridge, and caused useless loss of his men. "I made a grievous error," he confessed; "follow not my example herein; it behoveth us not to close the way against such as may be driven to turn upon us in despair."
The carnage was almost unparalleled even in the annals of Islam, and it went on into the night. A hundred warriors boasted that they slew each ten men to his lance; hence the battle has been called The field of Tens. No engagement left marks wider or more lasting. For ages bones of the slain bleached the plain; and the men of Al-Kufa had here, at their very door, lasting proof at once of the prowess and the mercilessness of the first invaders.
The victory is remarkable as gained in part by the valour of a Christian tribe. And yet further, the most gallant feat of the day was achieved by one of another Christian clan; for a party of Bedawi merchants with a
string of horses for sale, arriving just as the ranks were being dressed, threw themselves into the battle on the Arab side. A youth from amongst them darting into the centre of the Persians, slew the leader Mihran, and leaping on his richly caparisoned horse, rode back crying, as he passed in triumph amidst the plaudits of the Muslim line: "I am of the Beni Taghlib. I am he that hath slain the Chief."
The loss on the Muslim side was considerable. Al-Muthanna mourned the death of a brother who, when borne from the field mortally wounded, cried: "Exalt your banners ye Beni Bekr, and the Lord will exalt you, my men; let not my fall disturb you!" The Christian chieftain met a similar fate. Al-Muthanna affectionately tended the last moments of boththe Christian and the Musliman unwonted sight on these fanatic fields. He performed the funeral service over his brother and the other fallen Muslims, and said in his panegyric: "It assuageth my grief that they stood stedfast; they yielded not a step; and now here they lie, the Martyrs of Al-Buweib."
The spoil was great. Immense stores of grain and herds of cattle were captured. Supplies were sent to the families in their retreat; but as the convoy rode up, the women mistaking it for a hostile raid, rushed out with their wild Arab scream, and attacked it with stones and staves. The Leader soon made himself known, and praised their courageous bearing. "It well becometh the wives of such an army," he said, "thus to defend themselves." Then he told of the victory; "and lo," pointing to the stores of grain, "the first-fruits thereof!"
The country was now ravaged without let or hindrance to the very walls of Al-Medain. The enemy's garrisons were driven back; and lower Mesopotamia and the Delta occupied anew. Parties scoured the country higher up, and many rich markets were ransacked. They penetrated to Baghdad (then a mere village on the Tigris), and even as far north as Tekrit. Great booty was gathered in these plundering expeditions, to be divided in the usual way.
Al-Muthanna lived but a few months after his last great victory. He never entirely recovered from his wounds received at the battle of the Bridge, and eventually succumbed. His merits have not been recognised as they
deserve. That he did not belong to the Nobility of Islam was the misfortune which kept him in the background. Jarir declined to serve under him, a common Bedawi like himself,not even a Companion of the Prophet; and complained accordingly to the Caliph. 'Omar, as we shall see, listened to the appeal, and eventually appointed another Commander over both. But before entering on a new chapter in the Persian war, we must revert in our next to the course of events in Syria.
The character of Al-Muthanna, however, deserves more than a passing notice. Among the generals who secured the triumph of Islam, he was second only to one. Inferior to Khalid in dash and brilliancy of enterprise, he did not yield to him in vigour and strategic skill. Free from the unscrupulous cruelty of that great Leader, we never hear of his using victory to gratify private ends. It was due alone to the cool and desperate stand which Al-Muthanna made at the Bridge, that the Muslim force was not utterly annihilated there; while the formation so rapidly afterwards of a fresh army by which, with the help of Christian tribes (rare mark of Muslim liberality in contrast with the bigotry of later days) a prodigious host was overthrown, showed powers of administration and generalship far beyond his fellows. The repeated supersession of Al-Muthanna cost the Caliphate much, and at one time even rendered the survival of Islam in Al-'Irak doubtful; but it never affected his loyalty to 'Omar. The sentiment of the day may have rendered it difficult for the Caliph to place a Bedawi of obscure origin in command of men who as Companions had fought under the Prophet's very banner. But it is strange that no historian, jealous for the honour of the heroes of Islam, has regretted the supersession of one so distinguished in its annals, or sought to give Al-Muthanna his deserved place as one of the great Generals of the world.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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