Chapter 28: Deeper into Syria
"O joy to Syria! O joy to Syria! O joy to Syria! For the angels of the Ever-Merciful spread their wings over it."
[Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)]1
If the soldiers hoped that they would have a day of rest after the harrowing experience of the five days' march-which had brought them closer to annihilation than any battle could have done-they were mistaken. The very next morning Khalid set his army in motion towards Suwa. The men could not complain, for their commander himself took no rest nor looked as if he needed it. In fact as the march began and Khalid rode up and down, the column to see that all was well, the sight of their commander put fresh vigour into the soldiers, and they forgot the horrible memories of the perilous march. This day they would draw their first blood in the Syrian Campaign. They had to draw blood, for Khalid had arrived!
Khalid started his Syrian Campaign wearing a coat of, chain mail which had belonged to Musailima the Liar. At his broad leather belt hung a magnificent sword which had also belonged to Musailima the Liar. These two were trophies of the Battle of Yamamah. Over his chain helmet he wore a red turban, and under the helmet, a red cap. In this cap, if examined carefully, could be seen a few black lines; and in the eyes of Khalid this cap was more precious than all his weapons and armour. Its story shall be told at another time. In his hand Khalid carried a black standard which had been given him by the Holy Prophet. It had once belonged to the Prophet and was known as the Eagle.
With Khalid travelled 9,000 fearless fighters, veterans of many victorious battles, not one of whom would think twice before laying down his life on the orders of his beloved commander. In this army also travelled some of the bravest young officers of the time, who would perform prodigies of valour and laugh at death. There was Khalid's own son, Abdur-Rahman-just turned 18. There was the Caliph's son, also named Abdur-Rahman. There was Raafe bin Umaira, the guide on the Perilous March, who was Khalid's son-in-law and a redoubtable warrior. There was Qaqa bin Amr, the one-man-reinforcement sent to Khalid by the Caliph. And there was one young man of whom we shall hear a great deal in this campaign, Zarrar bin Al Azwar, a slim, sinewy youth whose cheerful countenance and bubbling enthusiasm could make exhausted men want to get up and fight again. Dhiraar was to become Khalid's right-hand man. He would be given the most daring missions and would show both a reckless disregard for danger and a most uncanny knack of survival.
In the early afternoon the column reached Suwa, (See Map 15) This was the first settlement near, the border, of Syria and was an oasis surrounded by a grassy area of land used to graze large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Moving through this settlement, Khalid put down all resistance and commandeered the grazing flock to stock up the army's food supply for the campaign.
Next day the army arrived at Arak, which was a fortified town defended by a garrison of Christian Arabs under the command of a Roman officer. As the garrison had retired to the safety of the fort on sighting them, the Muslims laid siege to Arak. It was here that Khalid first came to know that his fame had spread beyond the lands in which he had fought. His reputation proved sufficient to bring about a peaceful surrender.
In Arak lived an old scholar who kept himself informed of the affairs of the world. When he was told of the arrival of a hostile army across the desert, he asked, "Is the standard of this army a black one? Is the commander of this army a tall, powerfully built, broad shouldered man with a large beard and a few pock marks on his face?" 2Those who had seen the approach of Khalid and brought the news to Arak confirmed that it was indeed so. "Then beware of fighting this army", warned the sage.
The Roman garrison commander made an offer to surrender the fort, and was astonished at the generous terms offered by the Muslims. Beyond the payment of the Jizya, the people of Arak would pay or suffer nothing. The pact was signed, the fort was surrendered, and the Muslim army camped outside for the night.
The next morning Khalid despatched two columns to subdue Sukhna and Qadma (now known as Qudaim). At the same time, he sent a camel rider to find Abu Ubaidah in the area of Jabiya and tell him to remain at his position until the arrival of Khalid or the receipt of further instructions. Then, with the main body of his army, Khalid marched to Tadmur (Palmyra).
1. Tirmidhi, Ahmad and Hakim from Zayd bin Thabit. Sahih Al-Jami' Al-Saghir No. 3920.
When the columns sent by Khalid arrived at Sukhna and Qadma, they were received joyfully by the inhabitants, who had heard of the generous terms given the day before to Arak. They were only too willing to make friends. There was no trouble at these places and the columns returned to the army without any bloodshed.
At Tadmur, the garrison locked itself in the fort, but hardly had the Muslims arrived and surrounded the fort, when parleys were started for a peaceful surrender. Soon after a surrender was negotiated in which the inhabitants of Tadmur agreed to pay the Jizya and feed and shelter any Muslim warrior passing by their town. The Arab chief of Tadmur also presented Khalid with a prize horse, which he used in several battles of this campaign.
From Tadmur the army marched to Qaryatain, the inhabitants of which resisted the Muslims. They were fought, defeated and plundered.
The next stop was Huwareen (about 10 miles beyond Qaryatain) which contained large herds of cattle. As the Muslims started gathering in the cattle, they were attacked by thousands of Arabs. These were the local inhabitants reinforced by a contingent of the Ghassan from Busra, which had hastened to help their comrades in Huwareen. They too were defeated and plundered.
The following morning the advance was resumed in the direction of Damascus, and after three days of marching the army arrived at a pass about 20 miles from Damascus. This pass lies between the present Azra and Qutaifa and crosses a gently sloping ridge which rises gradually to a height of over 2,000 feet above the level of the surrounding countryside. The ridge is part of the range known as Jabal-ush-Sharq, which is an offshoot of the Anti-Lebanon Range and runs in a north-easterly direction to Tadmur. The pass itself, not a formidable one, is quite long. Khalid stopped at the highest part of it, and here he planted his standard. As a result of this action the pass became known as Saniyyat-ul-Uqab, i.e. the Pass of the Eagle, after the name of Khalid's standard, but is sometimes referred to as just Al Saniyya. 1 At this pass Khalid stayed an hour with his standard fluttering in the breeze, and gazed at the Ghuta of Damascus. From where he stood, he could not see the city itself, because it was concealed from view by a rise of ground which stretches east?west, north of the city, but he marvelled at the richness and beauty of the Ghuta.2
From the Pass of the Eagle, Khalid moved to Marj Rahit, a large Ghassan town near the present Azra on the road to Damascus. 3 The Muslims arrived in time to participate in a joyous festival of the Ghassan, which participation took the form of a violent raid! At Marj Rahit had gathered a large number of refugees from the region over which Khalid had recently operated, and these refugees mingled with the crowds celebrating the festival. The Ghassan were not unmindful of the danger which Khalid's entry into Syria posed for them. They had positioned a strong screen of warriors on the route from Tadmur, below the pass; but this screen was scattered in a few minutes by a swift charge of the Muslim cavalry. Although some Ghassan resistance continued as the Muslims advanced, it ceased once the town was reached. The Muslims raided Marj Rahit. After a little while having collected a large amount of booty and a certain number of captives, Khalid pulled out of the town and camped outside.
The following morning he sent a strong mounted column towards Damascus with the task of raiding the Ghuta. Then, having sent a messenger to Abu Ubaidah with instructions to report to him at Busra, Khalid himself set off for Busra with the main body of the army, by-passing Damascus. The mounted column sent to Damascus reached the neighbourhood of the city, picked up more booty and captives, and rejoined Khalid while he was still on the march.
The minor operations following Khalid's entry into Syria were now over.
1. Yaqut: (Vol. 1, p. 936) gives the location of this pass as above the Ghuta of Damascus, on the Emessa Road.
2. The Ghuta was, and still is, a green, fertile, well-watered plain, covered with crops, orchards and villages, lying all round Damascus, except to the west and north?west, where stand the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Range. It formed an irregular D with its base on the foothills, and stretched up to about 10 miles from Damascus.
3. Marj Rahit, which was also a meadow, has been placed by Masudi (Muruj, Vol. 3, p.12: he calls it Marj Azra) 12 miles from Damascus. This would be about the centre of the meadow and the location of the town.
Abu Ubaidah had already occupied the District of Hauran which lay north-east of the river Yarmuk. Under his command he had three corps of the Muslim army-his own, Yazeed's and Shurahbil's, but he had fought no battles and captured no towns. One place which worried him a great deal was Busra, a large town which was the capital of the Ghassan Kingdom. It was garrisoned by a strong force of Romans and Christian Arabs under the command of Roman officers.
While Khalid was clearing the region of Eastern Syria, Abu Ubaidah came to know that he would come under Khalid's command upon the latter's arrival. He decided to take Busra quickly, so that Khalid would not have to worry about this problem. He therefore sent Shurahbil with 4,000 men to capture Busra. Shurahbil marched to Busra, the garrison of which withdrew into the fortified town as soon as the Muslims appeared in sight. This garrison consisted of 12,000 soldiers, but expecting that more Muslim forces would soon arrive and that Shurahbil's detachment was only an advance guard, it remained within the walls of the fort. Shurahbil camped on the western side of the town, and positioned groups of his men all round the fort.
For two days nothing happened. The following day, as Khalid set out on the last day of his march to Busra, the garrison of the town came out to give battle to the Muslims outside the city. Both forces formed up for battle; but first there were talks between Shurahbil and the Roman commander, at which the Muslim offered the usual alternatives, Islam, the Jizya, or the sword. The Romans chose the sword, and in the middle of the morning the battle began.
For the first two hours or so the fighting continued at a steady pace with neither side making any headway; but soon after midday, the superior strength of the Romans began to tell and the battle turned in their favour. The Romans were able to move forces around both Muslim flanks, and the fighting increased in intensity. The temper of the Muslims became suicidal as the real danger of their position became evident and they fought ferociously to avoid encirclement, which appeared to be the Roman design. By early afternoon the Roman wings had moved further forward, and the encirclement of Shurahbil's force became a virtual certainty. Then suddenly the combatants became aware of a powerful force of cavalry galloping in mass towards the battlefield from the northwest.
Khalid was about a mile from Busra when the wind carried the sounds of battle to him. He immediately ordered the men to horse, and as soon as the cavalry was ready, led it a gallop towards the battlefield. Beside him rode Abdur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr. But Khalid and the Romans never met. As soon as the Romans discovered the arrival of the Muslim cavalry, they broke contact from Shurahbil and withdrew hastily into the fort. The Muslims under Shurahbil came to regard this occurrence as a miracle: the Sword of Allah had been sent to save them from destruction!
Shurahbil was a brave and pious Muslim in his mid-sixties. A close Companion of the Prophet, he was one of those who used to write down the revelations of the Prophet, and consequently became know as a scribe of the Messenger of Allah. As often as not, he was addressed by this title. As a general, he was competent and sound, having learnt a great deal about the art of war from Khalid, under whom he had fought at Yamamah and in the Iraq Campaign.
It took only a glance for Khalid to assess the relative strengths of the Muslims and the Romans and he wondered why Shurahbil had not awaited his arrival before engaging the garrison at Busra. As soon as the two met and greeted each other, Khalid said, "O Shurahbil! Do you not know that this is an important frontier town of the Romans and contains a large garrison commanded by a distinguished general? Why did you go into battle with such a small force?"
"By the order of Abu Ubaidah", replied Shurahbil. Thereupon, Khalid remarked, "Abu Ubaidah is a man of the purest character, but he does not know the stratagems of war." 1
Next morning, the Roman garrison again came out of the fort to give battle. The shock of Khalid's arrival the previous day ad now worn off, and seeing that the combined strength of the Muslims was about the same as their own, the Romans decided to try their luck again. They also hoped to fight and defeat the Muslims before they could get a rest after their march. They did not know that Khalid's warriors were not used to resting!
The two armies formed up for battle on the plain outside the town. Khalid kept his center under his own command, appointing Raafe bin Umaira as the commander of the right wing and Dhiraar bin Al Azwar as the commander of the left wing. In front of the center, he placed a thin screen under Abdur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr. At the very start of the battle, Abdur-Rahman dueled with the Roman army commander and defeated him. As the Roman general fled to the safety of the Roman ranks, Khalid launched a general attack along the entire front. For some time the Romans resisted bravely, while the commanders of the Muslim wings played havoc with the opposing wings, especially Dhiraar, who now established a personal tradition which would make him famous in Syria - adored by the Muslims, and dreaded by the Romans. Because of the heat of the day, he took off his coat of mail; and this made him feel lighter and happier. Then he took off his shirt and became naked above the waist. This made him feel even lighter and even happier. In this half naked condition Dhiraar launched his assaults against the Romans and slaughtered all who faced him in single combat. Within a week, stories of the Naked Champion would spread over Syria, and only the bravest of Romans would feel inclined to face him in combat.
After some fighting, the Roman army broke contact and withdrew into the fort. At this time Khalid was fighting on foot in front of his centre. As he turned to give orders for the commencement of the siege, he saw a horseman approaching through the ranks of the Muslims. This horseman was to achieve fame and glory in the Syrian Campaign that would be second only to Khalid's.
A man in his early fifties, he was tall, slim and wiry with a slight stoop. His lean and clear-cut face was attractive, and his eyes showed understanding and gentleness. His thin beard was dyed. In his hand he held a standard such as only generals carried. This was a yellow standard and is believed to have been the standard of the Holy Prophet at the Battle of Khaibar. 1 His coat of mail did not conceal the simple and inexpensive appearance of the clothes that he wore. As he smiled at Khalid, he revealed a gap in his front teeth; and this gap was the envy of all Muslims. This was Abu Ubaidah, Son of the Surgeon, the One Without Incisors. He had lost his front teeth while pulling out the two links of the Prophet's helmet that had dug into the Prophet's cheek at the Battle of Uhud, and it is said that Abu Ubaidah was the handsomest of "those without incisors"! 2
Though called Abu Ubaidah bin Al Jarrah, his actual name was Amir bin Abdullah bin Al Jarrah. It was Abu Ubaidah's grandfather who was the surgeon (Al Jarrah), but like some Arabs he was known after his grandfather rather than his father. As a Muslim, he belonged to the topmost strata and had been very dear to the Prophet, who had once said, "Every nation has, its trusted one; and the trusted one of this nation is Abu Ubaidah." 3 Thereafter Abu Ubaidah had become known as the Trusted One of the Nation-Ameen-ul-Ummat. He was one of the Blessed Ten.
This was the man who had been placed under the command of Khalid, and the new army commander looked with some apprehension at the approach of the old army commander. Khalid had known Abu Ubaidah well at Madinah, and liked and respected him for his great virtue and his devout piety. Abu Ubaidah liked Khalid because of the Prophet's fondness for him and saw in him a military instrument that Allah had chosen to crush disbelief. Khalid was reassured by Abu Ubaidah's smile. As he got near, Abu Ubaidah started to dismount, for Khalid was still on foot. "Stay on your horse", Khalid called to him, and he remained mounted. Khalid walked up to him, and the two top generals in Syria shook hands.
"O Father of Sulaiman," began Abu Ubaidah, "I have received with gladness the letter of Abu Bakr appointing you commander over me. There is no resentment in my heart, for I know your skill in matters of war."
1. Ibid: p. 138.
2. Ibn Qutaiba: p. 248.
3. lbid: p. 247.
"By Allah," replied Khalid, "but for the necessity of obeying the orders of the Caliph, I would never have accepted this command over you. You are much higher than me in Islam. I am a Companion of the Prophet, but you are one whom the Messenger of Allah had called 'the trusted one of this nation." 1 And on this happy note Abu Ubaidah came under the command of Khalid.
The Muslims now laid siege to Busra. The Roman commander lost hope, for he knew that most of the available reserves had either moved or were moving to Ajnadein, and doubted that any help would be forthcoming. After a few days of inactivity, he surrendered the fort peacefully. The only condition Khalid imposed on Busra was the payment of the Jizya. This surrender took place in about the middle of July 634 (middle of Jamadi-ul-Awwal, 13 Hijri).
Busra was the first important town to be captured by the Muslims in Syria. The Muslims lost 130 men in the two days of fighting that preceded this victory. The casualties suffered by the Romans and the Christian Arabs are not on record. Khalid now wrote to Abu Bakr, informing him of the progress of his operations since his entry into Syria, and sent one-fifth of the spoils which had been won during the past few weeks. Hardly had Busra surrendered when an agent sent by Shurahbil to the region of Ajnadein returned to inform the Muslims that the concentration of Roman legions was proceeding apace. Soon they would have a vast army of 90,000 imperial soldiers at Ajnadein. This acted as a reminder to Khalid that there was no time to waste.
At this time Yazeed was still south of the River Yarmuk; Amr bin Al Aas was still at the Valley of Araba; and several detachments of the corps of Abu Ubaidah and Shurahbil were spread over the District of Hauran. Khalid wrote to all commanders to march at once and concentrate at Ajnadein; and the Muslims marched, taking with them their wives and children and vast herds of sheep which served as a moving supply depot. At Ajnadein would be fought the first of the mighty battles between Islam and Christendom.
1. Waqidi: p. 23.