Part III: The Invasion of Iraq
Chapter 18: The Clash with Persia
"Say to the desert Arabs who lagged behind: 'You shall be summoned against a people given to vehement war: you shall fight them, or they shall submit.
Then if you show obedience, Allah will grant you a goodly reward, but if you turn back as you did before, He will punish you with a painful Punishment."
The fort of Nujair, the last stronghold of apostasy, had fallen to the Muslims in about the middle of February 633. Soon after, Abu Bakr wrote to Khalid, who was still at Yamamah: "Proceed to Iraq. Start operations in the region of Uballa. Fight the Persians and the people who inhabit their land. Your objective is Hira." 1
It was a big order. Abu Bakr was taking on the mightiest empire of the time, before which the world had trembled for more than a thousand years.
The Persian Empire was unique in many ways. It was the first truly great empire of history, stretching, in the time of the early Achaemenians, from Northern Greece in the west to the Punjab in the east. It was unique also in the length of time over which it flourished-from the Sixth Century BC to the Seventh Century AD, except for a gap caused by the Greek conquest. 2 No other empire in history had lasted so long in all its greatness as a force of culture and civilisation and as a military power. It had known reverses, but after each reverse it had risen again in its characteristic glory and brilliance.
The last golden age of Persia had occurred in the Sixth Century AD when Anushirwan the Just restored the empire to its earlier level of greatness. Anushirwan reigned for 48 years and was a contemporary of Justinian. He wrested Syria from the Romans, the Yemen from the Abyssinians, and much of Central Asia from the Turks and other wild tribes of the steppes. This magnificent emperor died in 579, nine years after the birth of Prophet Muhammad.
As often happens when a great ruler passes away, Anushirwan was followed by a number of lesser mortals and the glory and prosperity of the empire began to fade. Civil war and intrigue sapped the strength of the state. The decline approached its climax in the time of Shiruya (Ciroes) a great-grandson of Anushirwan, who first imprisoned and then killed his father, Chosroes Parwez. Not content with this heinous crime, he turned to worse cruelties. So that none may dispute his right to the throne or pose a challenge to his authority, he had all the male members of his family killed with the exception of his son, Ardshir. The estimate of those of the house of Anushirwan who lost their lives to the maniacal fury of Shiruya, adult and child, varies from 15 to 18. And Shiruya reigned for only seven months before he too was dead.
With his death the confusion became worse. And there is confusion also in the accounts of the early historians about the order in which various emperors followed Shiruya and the duration of their respective reigns. All that is certain and unanimously accepted is the position of Yazdjurd bin Shahryar bin Perwez, who somehow escaped the assassins of Shiruya and became the last Persian Emperor of the line of Sasan. This ill-starred young man was to see the final disintegration of the great empire of the Chosroes.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, pp. 553-4.
2. The Parthians, who overthrew the Seleucid power, though not Persians, were nevertheless Iranians. Thus the Greek interlude lasted less than two centuries until its end at the hands of the Parthians in the middle of the Second Century BC, The Persian Sasanids came to power in 220 AD.
Between Shiruya and Yazdjurd there were about eight rulers in a period of four or five years, and these included two women-Buran and Azarmidukht, both daughters of Chosroes Parwez. The first of these, Buran, proved a wise and virtuous monarch but lacked the strong hand that was needed to arrest the decline in imperial affairs. She was crowned during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, who, when he heard of her coronation, made his famous remark: "A nation will never prosper that entrusts its affairs to a woman!" 1
We will not go into a description of all the countries which comprised the geographical domain of the Persian Empire, but will confine ourselves to Iraq. Iraq then was not a sovereign State; it was substantially less than that. It was not merely a province; it was considerably more than that. Iraq was a land-one of the lands of the Persian Empire; and in its western and southern parts it was an Arab land.
The Arabs had been known in Iraq since the days of Bukht Nassar, 2 but did not then enjoy any power in the land. It was not until the early part of the Christian era, when a fresh migration of Arab tribes came to Iraq from the Yemen, that they began to command authority and influence. One of the great chiefs of these migrating Arabs, a man by the name of Malik bin Fahm, proclaimed himself king and began to rule over the western part of Iraq. Two generations after him the throne passed to Amr bin Adi, of the tribe of Lakhm, who started the Lakhmid Dynasty which was also at times called the House of Munzir. The kings of this dynasty ruled for many generations as vassals of the Persian Emperor.
The last of the House of Munzir was Numan bin Mundhir, who committed an act of disloyalty against Chosroes Parwez for which he was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out in style-he was trampled to death by an elephant! This led to a revolt by the Arabs of Iraq, which was soon crushed by the Emperor, and with this abortive revolt ended the House of Munzir.
Chosroes then appointed a new king, Iyas bin Qubaisa of the tribe of Tayy, to rule over Iraq. For some years the new king enjoyed a reasonable degree of autonomy. Then most of his authority was taken away and Persian generals and administrators took over the entire government of the land. Iyas remained a titular king.
A land of culture, wealth and abundance, Iraq was the most prized possession of the Persian Empire. To the Arabs from the barren wastes of Arabia it was a green jewel, a land flowing with milk and honey. Its two mighty rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, were the greatest known rivers of the time-west of the Indus and north of the Nile. But these rivers did not then flow as they flow now, nor were the cities of Iraq then its cities of today. Kufa and Basra did not exist (they were founded in 17 Hijri). Baghdad was a small though much-frequented market town on the west bank of the Tigris. The then glorious cities of Ctesiphon and Hira are now turned to dust. Ctesiphon was the capital-a mighty metropolis and the seat of glory of the Persian Empire. Reportedly built by Ardsheer bin Babak (also, known as Ardsheer Babakan and Artaxerxes, the founder of the Sasanid Dynasty) it sprawled on both sides of the Tigris and was known to the Muslims as Madain, literally the Cities, for it consisted of several cities in one. 3 Hira was the capital of the Arab Lakhmid Dynasty. Situated on the west bank of the Euphrates, it was a glittering, throbbing city with many citadels. 4 And there was Uballa, the main port of the Persian Empire which was visited by ships from India and China and other maritime countries of the East. Uballa was also the capital of the military district of Dast Meisan. 5
1. Masudi: Tanbeeh, p. 90; Ibn Qutaiba: p. 666.
2. Nebuchadnezzar, Seventh-Sixth Century BC.
3. According to some sources, Ctesiphon existed before Ardsheer and was used by the Parthians as a winter residence.
4. The site of Hira is 12 miles south-east of Nejef and half a mile south of the present Abu Sukheir. Nothing remains of the ancient city except some traces of the White Palace which stood at the northern end of Hira. According to Gibbon (Vol. 5, p. 299), Hira was founded in 190 AD.
5. Uballa stood where the part of modern Basra known as Ashar stands today.
The Euphrates and the Tigris have been known to change their course more than once since the time of Babylon. The maps in this book indicate the course which these rivers followed in the early days of Islam. The main difference from today is in the course of the Tigris. In pre-Islamic times it had flowed in what is its present channel, which is known as Dijlat-ul-Aura (the One-Eyed Tigris), but then it had abandoned this channel and adopted a new course from Kut downwards, along the Dujaila (the Little Tigris) and the Akhzar, to enter a region of lakes and marshes comprising an area about 100 miles square, just north-west of Uballa. The old bed of the river had then become a dry, sandy bed. The marshes extended much farther north than they do today (the area shown as marshland in Map 10 below is not exact); and the Tigris picked its way through these marshes to rejoin the bed of the One-Eyed Tigris in the region of Mazar (the present Azeir), whence it flowed south and south-east into the Persian Gulf. 1 But the Tigris changed its course again in the Sixteenth Century and returned to its old bed, the one marked on all maps now as the Tigris. This, however, is not the largest branch of the Tigris, for the Gharraf, taking off from Kut and joining the Euphrates at Nasiriya, is larger. The Dujaila, which in the early days of Islam was the main channel, is now a modest river-the third largest branch of the Tigris, after the Gharraf and the One-Eyed Tigris.
The Euphrates followed a clear course down to the present Hindiya, whence it split into two main channels as it does today-both sizable rivers: the Hilla branch and the main Euphrates. The main branch (the western one) again split up, flowing generally in one large and several subsidiary channels, which over the centuries have changed course several times, though not as drastically as the Tigris. The two main branches reunited at Samawa, whence the Euphrates flowed towards the region of lakes and marshes. While some of the water of the river lost itself in the marshes, one clear channel marked on today's maps as the Euphrates retained its distinct identity as it flowed eastwards to join the Tigris at Qurna. The marshes were drained by a large river known as Maqil, which emptied into the Tigris a little north of Basra; and from this junction all these waters flowed into the Persian Gulf as one great river, known today as the Shatt-ul-Arab. (See Map 10 above).
Many changes have taken place in the bends and twists of these rivers. I have not shown these details on the maps as there is no way of knowing how they appeared then. Hence, only the main branches of these rivers are shown on our maps, and without all the twists and turns which must undoubtedly have existed.
This then was how Iraq stood politically and geographically, when the Caliph launched Khalid on it. It was a land occupied by Persians and Arabs, and ruled by the Persian court. The Empire had begun to decline politically, but it would be wrong to imagine that it had declined militarily. The military effectiveness of an empire may remain at a high level for decades after its political disintegration has set in. And so it was with the Persians in the year 633.
The Persian army, including its Arab auxiliaries, was the most formidable and most efficient military machine of the time. Led by experienced and dedicated veterans, it was a proud, sophisticated and well?tried force which gloried in its past achievements and its present might. The Persian soldier was the best-equipped warrior of his day. He wore a coat of mail or a breast-plate; on his head rested a helmet of either chain mail or beaten metal; his forearms were covered by metal sleeves, and his legs, were protected by greaves (like leg-guards covering the front part of the leg). He carried a spear, lance or javelin, a sword, and either an axe or an iron mace (the latter was a favourite and much-feared Persian weapon). He also carried one or two bows with 30 arrows and two spare bowstrings hanging from his helmet. 2 Thus, powerfully equipped and armed was the Persian soldier. But, and this was inevitable, he lacked mobility. In the general, set-piece battle he acknowledged no equals; and in this he was right, until Khalid's lightly armed and fast-moving riders came along.
It all started with Muthanna bin Harithah. A tiger of a man who later died of wounds suffered in battle with the Persians, Muthanna was a chief of the tribe of Bani Bakr, which inhabited the north-eastern part of the Arabian peninsula and southern Iraq. It is not certain that Muthanna had become a Muslim during the time of the Prophet. He probably had, because a delegation from the Bani Bakr had travelled to Madinah during the Year of Delegations and had accepted Islam at the hands of the Prophet. But there is no actual record of Muthanna's conversion.
1. Ibn Rusta: pp. 94-5. At Mazar (Azeir) today only a small river flows into the Tigris from the west-certainly too small to form the bed of the old Tigris. The old bed has probably silted up and ceased to be discernible.
2. Dinawari: p. 73.
Shortly after the Battle of Yamamah, Muthanna turned his attention towards Iraq. Seeking adventure and spoils, and encouraged by the disarray which was apparent in the political affairs of the Persian Empire, Muthanna took a band of his followers and began to raid into Iraq. At first he stuck to the periphery of the desert so that he could withdraw quickly into the safety of the sandy wastes, but gradually his incursions became bolder. He varied his objectives, striking now in the east, now in the west. Most of his raids, however, were in the region of Uballa, and he returned from these raids with spoils to dazzle the hungry Arab of the desert. The Persian garrisons were helpless against Muthanna's ghostlike riders, who vanished as rapidly as they struck.
Encouraged by his successes, Muthanna approached Abu Bakr. This was early in February 633 (late Dhul Qad, 11 Hijri). He painted a glowing picture-the vulnerable state of Iraq, the riches that waited to be plundered, the prolonged political crisis which bedevilled the Persian court, the inability of the Persian garrisons to fight mobile, fast-moving engagements. "Appoint me as commander of my people", said Muthanna, "and I shall raid the Persians. Thus I shall also protect our region from them." 1
The Caliph agreed and gave him a letter of authority appointing him commander over all the Muslims of the Bani Bakr. With this letter of authority Muthanna returned to North-Eastern Arabia. Here he converted more tribesmen to Islam, gathered a small army of 2,000 men and resumed his raids with even greater enthusiasm and violence.
Muthanna was gone from Madinah, but his words continued to ring in the ears of the Caliph. He had planted a seed in the mind of Abu Bakr which germinated in a few days into a decision to take Iraq. He would not fight the entire Persian Empire, for that would be too big an objective in present circumstances. He would just take the Iraq of the Arabs, which meant the region west of the Tigris. Thus he would enlarge the boundaries of Islam and spread the new faith. At home there was peace, for with the defeat of the Kinda at Fort Nujair, Islam had been re-established in the land of Arabia.
Islam is a religion of peace, but not the peace of the timid and the submissive. It believes in peace, but the peace of the just and strong. "Fight in the way of Allah", says the Quran, "against those who fight you, but do not transgress." [Quran 2:190]… "And fight them until mischief is no more and religion is all for Allah."[Quran 8:39]. And so it would be war with the fire-worshipping Persians.
Abu Bakr had made up his mind to invade Iraq; but he would have to proceed with great care, for the Arab feared the Persian-with a deep, unreasoning fear which ran in the tribal consciousness as a racial complex and was the result of centuries of Persian power and glory. In return the Persian regarded the Arab with contempt. It was important not to suffer a defeat, for that would confirm and strengthen this instinctive fear. To make certain of victory, Abu Bakr decided on two measures: (a) the invading army would consist entirely of volunteers; (b) Khalid would be the commander of the army.
With this in view, he sent orders to Khalid to invade Iraq and fight the Persians. He further instructed Khalid to call to arms those who had fought the apostates and remained steadfast in their faith after the death of the Messenger of Allah, and to exclude from the expedition those who had apostatised. Finally, he added (referring to the soldiers): "Whoever wishes to return to his home may do so." 2
When Khalid announced to his troops that the Caliph had given them permission to return home if they wished to do so, he was shocked by the result: thousands of his army left the army and returned Madinah and other places whence they had come. Whereas at the Battle of Yamamah he had commanded an army of 13,000 men, he was now left with only 2,000 men. Khalid wrote in haste to the Caliph, informing him of this alarming state of affairs and asking for reinforcements. When the letter reached Abu Bakr, he was sitting among his friends and advisers. He read the letter aloud so that all present might hear what it said. Then he sent for a young stalwart by the name of Qaqa bin Amr.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 552.
2. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 553.
The young man arrived in the presence of the Caliph, armed and equipped for travel. The Caliph ordered him to proceed forthwith to Yamamah as a reinforcement to the army of Khalid. The Companions stared in amazement at the Caliph. "Are you reinforcing one whose army has left him, with one man?" they asked. 1
Abu Bakr looked for a moment at Qaqa. Then he said, "No army can be defeated if its ranks possess the likes of this man." 2 And Qaqa bin Amr rode away to reinforce the army of Khalid!
But this was not the only action that Abu Bakr took to build up Khalid's forces. He also wrote to Muthanna and Mazhur bin Adi (an important chief in North-Eastern Arabia), instructing them to muster their warriors and consider themselves and their men under the command of Khalid for the invasion of Iraq.
Having issued these instructions, Abu Bakr sat back and relaxed. He had given Khalid his mission to invade Iraq and fight the Persians; he had laid down a starting-point for the campaign, the region of Uballa; he had given Khalid his objective - Hira; and he had placed under Khalid's command whatever force he could muster. There was nothing else that he could do. It was up to Khalid to accomplish his mission. And Khalid, now in the forty-eighth year of his life, set about the conquest of Iraq. 3
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, pp. 553-4.
3. There are two main versions of campaign of Iraq: the first of Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, the second of Saif bin Umar. Tabari favours the latter version, and this is the one here used in the account of Khalid's invasion of Iraq. In this also there are two versions of Abu Bakr's plan for the invasion. For an explanation, see Note 4 in Appendix B.