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18 A.H.   /   639 A.D.

The Year of Ashes, 18 A.H., 639 A.D.

THE fifth year of 'Omar's Caliphate was darkened by the double calamity of pestilence and famine. It is called "The Year of Ashes," for the dry air of the Hijaz was so charged with unslaked dust from the parched and sandy soil as to obscure the light of heaven by a thick and sultry haze.

Famine in Arabia.

In the northern half of the Peninsula the drought was so severe that Nature languished. Wild and timid creatures of the desert, tamed by want, came seeking food at the hand of man. Flocks and herds died of starvation, or became too attenuated for human food. Markets were deserted, and the people suffered extremities like those of a garrison long besieged. Crowds of Bedawin, driven by hunger, flocked to Medina and aggravated the distress. 'Omar, with characteristic self-denial, refused any indulgence not shared with those about him. He swore that he would taste neither meat nor butter, nor even milk, until the people had food enough and to spare. On one occasion his servant obtained at a great price a skin filled with milk, and another with butter. 'Omar sent both away in alms. "I will not eat," he said, "of that which costeth much; for how then should I know the trouble of my people, if I suffer not even as they?" From coarse fare and oil-olive instead of milk and butter, the Caliph's countenance, naturally fresh and bright, became sallow and haggard.

Grain imported from Syria and elsewhere.

Every effort was made to alleviate distress, and effective aid at last came from abroad. Abu 'Obeida brought 4000 beasts of burden laden with corn from Syria, which he


distributed himself amongst the famished people. 'Amr despatched food from Palestine by camels, and also by shipping from the port of Ayla. Supplies came likewise from Chaldĉa. The beasts that bore the burden were slain by twenties daily, and served, together with their freight, to feed the citizens of Medina. After nine months of sore trial, a solemn Assembly was called by 'Omar; and in answer (we are told) to a prayer offered up by Al-'Abbas, the Prophet's aged uncle, the heavens were overcast and rain descending in heavy showers drenched the land. Grass sprang rapidly, the Bedawin were sent back to their pasture-lands, and plenty again prevailed. Out of the calamity there grew a permanent traffic with the north, and the markets of the Hijaz continued long to be supplied from Syria, and eventually by sea from Egypt.

Plague of 'Amwas.

The famine was followed, but in a different region, by an evil of still greater magnitude. The plague broke out in Syria: from the town at which it began (Emmaus) it was called the plague of 'Amwas; and, attacking with special virulence the Arabs at Hims and Damascus, devastated the whole province. Crossing the desert. it spread even as far as Al-Basra. Consternation seized every rank. High and low fell equally before the scourge. Men were struck down and died as by a sudden blow. 'Omar's first impulse was to summon Abu 'Obeida to Medina for the time, lest he too should fall a victim to the fell disease. Knowing his chivalrous spirit 'Omar veiled the purpose, and simply ordered him to come "on an urgent affair." Abu 'Obeida divined the cause, and choosing rather to share the danger with his people, begged to be excused. 'Omar, as he read the answer, burst into tears. "Is Abu 'Obeida dead?" they asked. "No, he is not dead," said 'Omar, "but it is as if he were."

'Omar holds Council on Syrian border.

The Caliph then set out himself for Syria, but not far from Tebuk he was met by Abu 'Obeida and others from the scene of the disaster. A council was called, and 'Omar yielded to the wish of the majority that he should return home again. "What," cried some of his courtiers, "and flee from the decree of God?" "Yea," replied the Caliph, wiser than they,—"if we flee, it is but from the decree of God unto the decree of God." He then commanded Abu 'Obeida to carry the Arab population in a body out of the


infected cities into the desert; and himself wended his way back to Medina.1

Arabs fly to Hauran.

Acting on the Caliph's wish, Abu 'Obeida lost no time in making the people fly to the high lands of the Hauran. He had reached as far as Al-Jabiya, when he too was struck down, and with his son fell a victim to the pestilence.

Death of Abu 'Obeida.

Mo'adh ibn Jebel, designated to succeed, died almost immediately after; and it was left for 'Amr to lead the panic-stricken folks to the hill-country, where the pestilence abated. Shurahbil ibn Hasana also fell a victim—it is said on the same day as Abu 'Obeida. Yezid, son of Abu Sufyan, perished.2 Not less that five-and-twenty thousand perished in the visitation. Of a single family which had emigrated seventy in number from Medina, but four were left. Such was the deadliness of the scourge.

'Omar's journey to Syria, autumn, 18 A.H., 639 A.D.

The country was disabled, and fears were entertained of an attack from the Roman armies. The terrible extent of the calamity showed itself in another way. A vast amount of property was left by the dead, and the gaps amongst the survivors caused much embarrassment in the succeeding claims. The difficulty grew so serious, that to settle this and other matters 'Omar resolved on making a progress through his dominions. At first he thought of visiting Chaldĉa, and thence by Mesopotamia, entering Syria from the north; but he abandoned the larger project, and confining his resolution to Syria, took the usual route. The way lay through the Christian town of Ayla at the head of the Gulf of Akaba; and his visit here brings out well the

1 During the discussion 'Abd ar-Rahman quoted a saying of Mohammad:—"If pestilence break out in a land, go not thither; if thou art there, flee not from it." 'Omar's views were more reasonable, and he justified them by this illustration:—"Suppose (he said) that ye alight in a valley, whereof one side is green with pasture, and the other bare and barren, whichever side ye let loose your camels upon, it would be by the decree of God; but ye would choose the brow that was green." And so he judged that in removing the people from the scene of danger to a healthier locality, he was making no attempt to flee from the decree of God.

2 The tombs of these three great men are places of pious pilgrimage down to the present day. That of Abu 'Obeida is at 'Amta in the Jordan valley, that of Shurahbil near the Wadi Yabis, and that of Mo'adh also in the Ghaur of Beisan.—Burckhardt, Travels in Syria, p. 345 f. As to Yezid, see p. 143.


Visits the Bishop of Ayla.

simplicity and kindly feeling which he evinced toward his Christian subjects. He rode on a camel with small pomp and following; and, minded to enter the village unrecognised, changed places with his servant, putting him in front. "Where is the Amir?" cried the eager citizens, streaming forth to witness the Caliph's advent. "He is before you," replied 'Omar with double meaning, as the camel moved slowly on. So the crowd hurried forward, thinking that the great Ruler was still beyond, and left 'Omar to alight unobserved at the house of the Bishop, with whom he lodged during the heat of the day. His coat, rent upon the journey, was given to his host to mend. This the Bishop not only did, but had a lighter garment made for him, more suited to the oppressive travel of the season. 'Omar, however, preferred to wear his own.

'Omar in Syria.

Proceeding onwards, the Caliph made the circuit of Syria. He visited the chief Muslim settlements, gave instructions for the disposal of the estates of the multitudes swept away by the plague, and himself decided doubtful claims.

Appoints Mu'awiya governor.

As both Abu 'Obeida and Yezid had perished in the pestilence, 'Omar now appointed Mu'awiya, another son of Abu Sufyan, to the chief command in Syria, and thus laid the foundation of the Umeiyad dynasty. Mu'awiya was a man of unbounded ambition, but wise and able withal; and he turned to good account his new position. The factions which glorified the claims of 'Ali and Al-'Abbas, and spurned the Umeiyad blood of Mu'awiya, were yet unknown. Both 'Ali and Al-'Abbas had hitherto remained inactive at Medina. The latter, always weak and wavering, was now enfeebled by old age. The former, honoured, indeed, as the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and also for his wit and wisdom, was amongst the trusted counsellors of the Caliph, but possessed no special power or influence or any apparent ambition beyond a life of quiet indulgence in the charms of a harim, varied ever and anon by fresh arrivals. Neither is there any reason to suppose that the bygone opposition to Islam of Abu Sufyan and Hind, parents of Mu'awiya, was now remembered against them. Sins preceding conversion, if followed by a consistent profession, left no stain upon the Believer. It was not till the fires of civil strife burst forth that abuse was heaped


upon the Umeiyad race for ancient misdeeds and enmity towards the Prophet, and political capital made of them. The accession, therefore, of Mu'awiya at the present time to the chief command in Syria excited no jealousy or opposition. It passed, indeed, as a thing of course, without remark.

Bilal performs office of Muezzin.

As 'Omar prepared to take final leave of Syria, a scene occurred which stirred to their depths the hearts of the of the Faithful. It was the voice of Bilal, the Muezzin of the Prophet, proclaiming the hour of prayer. The stentorian call of the aged African had not been heard since the death of Mohammad; for he refused to perform the duty for any other. He followed the army to Syria, and there, honoured for the office he had so long discharged at Medina, lived in retirement. The Chief citizens of Damascus now petitioned 'Omar that on this last occasion, Bilal should be asked once more to perform the Call to Prayer. The aged man consented, and as from the top of the Great Mosque the well-known voice arose clear and loud with the accustomed cry, the whole assembly, recalling vividly the Prophet at daily prayers, was melted into tears, and strong warriors with 'Omar at their head, lifted up their voices and sobbed aloud. Bilal died two years after.1

Pilgrimage, xii. 18 A.H., Dec. 639 A.D.

On returning to Medina, 'Omar set out on the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca, at which he presided every year of his Caliphate. But this was the last journey which he made beyond the limits of Arabia.

1 For Bilal and his office of Muezzin, see Life of Mohammad, p. 196.

The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]

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