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Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 5, by Edward Gibbon, [1788], at

Chapter LI: Conquests By The Arabs. Part I.

The Conquest Of Persia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, And Spain, By The Arabs Or Saracens. - Empire Of The Caliphs, Or Successors Of Mahomet. - State Of The Christians, &c., Under Their Government.

The revolution of Arabia had not changed the character of the Arabs: the death of Mahomet was the signal of independence; and the hasty structure of his power and religion tottered to its foundations. A small and faithful band of his primitive disciples had listened to his eloquence, and shared his distress; had fled with the apostle from the persecution of Mecca, or had received the fugitive in the walls of Medina. The increasing myriads, who acknowledged Mahomet as their king and prophet, had been compelled by his arms, or allured by his prosperity. The polytheists were confounded by the simple idea of a solitary and invisible God; the pride of the Christians and Jews disdained the yoke of a mortal and contemporary legislator. The habits of faith and obedience were not sufficiently confirmed; and many of the new converts regretted the venerable antiquity of the law of Moses, or the rites and mysteries of the Catholic church; or the idols, the sacrifices, the joyous festivals, of their Pagan ancestors. The jarring interests and hereditary feuds of the Arabian tribes had not yet coalesced in a system of union and subordination; and the Barbarians were impatient of the mildest and most salutary laws that curbed their passions, or violated their customs. They submitted with reluctance to the religious precepts of the Koran, the abstinence from wine, the fast of the Ramadan, and the daily repetition of five prayers; and the alms and tithes, which were collected for the treasury of Medina, could be distinguished only by a name from the payment of a perpetual and ignominious tribute. The example of Mahomet had excited a spirit of fanaticism or imposture, and several of his rivals presumed to imitate the conduct, and defy the authority, of the living prophet. At the head of the fugitives and auxiliaries, the first caliph was reduced to the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Tayef; and perhaps the Koreish would have restored the idols of the Caaba, if their levity had not been checked by a seasonable reproof. "Ye men of Mecca, will ye be the last to embrace, and the first to abandon, the religion of Islam?" After exhorting the Moslems to confide in the aid of God and his apostle, Abubeker resolved, by a vigorous attack, to prevent the junction of the rebels. The women and children were safely lodged in the cavities of the mountains: the warriors, marching under eleven banners, diffused the terror of their arms; and the appearance of a military force revived and confirmed the loyalty of the faithful. The inconstant tribes accepted, with humble repentance, the duties of prayer, and fasting, and alms; and, after some examples of success and severity, the most daring apostates fell prostrate before the sword of the Lord and of Caled. In the fertile province of Yemanah,  1 between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Persia, in a city not inferior to Medina itself, a powerful chief (his name was Moseilama) had assumed the character of a prophet, and the tribe of Hanifa listened to his voice. A female prophetess  *_0022 was attracted by his reputation; the decencies of words and actions were spurned by these favorites of Heaven;  2 and they employed several days in mystic and amorous converse. An obscure sentence of his Koran, or book, is yet extant;  3 and in the pride of his mission, Moseilama condescended to offer a partition of the earth. The proposal was answered by Mahomet with contempt; but the rapid progress of the impostor awakened the fears of his successor: forty thousand Moslems were assembled under the standard of Caled; and the existence of their faith was resigned to the event of a decisive battle.  **_0022 In the first action they were repulsed by the loss of twelve hundred men; but the skill and perseverance of their general prevailed; their defeat was avenged by the slaughter of ten thousand infidels; and Moseilama himself was pierced by an Aethiopian slave with the same javelin which had mortally wounded the uncle of Mahomet. The various rebels of Arabia without a chief or a cause, were speedily suppressed by the power and discipline of the rising monarchy; and the whole nation again professed, and more steadfastly held, the religion of the Koran. The ambition of the caliphs provided an immediate exercise for the restless spirit of the Saracens: their valor was united in the prosecution of a holy war; and their enthusiasm was equally confirmed by opposition and victory.

From the rapid conquests of the Saracens a presumption will naturally arise, that the caliphs  !_0023 commanded in person the armies of the faithful, and sought the crown of martyrdom in the foremost ranks of the battle. The courage of Abubeker,  4 Omar,  5 and Othman,  6 had indeed been tried in the persecution and wars of the prophet; and the personal assurance of paradise must have taught them to despise the pleasures and dangers of the present world. But they ascended the throne in a venerable or mature age; and esteemed the domestic cares of religion and justice the most important duties of a sovereign. Except the presence of Omar at the siege of Jerusalem, their longest expeditions were the frequent pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca; and they calmly received the tidings of victory as they prayed or preached before the sepulchre of the prophet. The austere and frugal measure of their lives was the effect of virtue or habit, and the pride of their simplicity insulted the vain magnificence of the kings of the earth. When Abubeker assumed the office of caliph, he enjoined his daughter Ayesha to take a strict account of his private patrimony, that it might be evident whether he were enriched or impoverished by the service of the state. He thought himself entitled to a stipend of three pieces of gold, with the sufficient maintenance of a single camel and a black slave; but on the Friday of each week he distributed the residue of his own and the public money, first to the most worthy, and then to the most indigent, of the Moslems. The remains of his wealth, a coarse garment, and five pieces of gold, were delivered to his successor, who lamented with a modest sigh his own inability to equal such an admirable model. Yet the abstinence and humility of Omar were not inferior to the virtues of Abubeker: his food consisted of barley bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places; and the Persian satrap, who paid his homage to the conqueror, found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosch of Medina. Oeeconomy is the source of liberality, and the increase of the revenue enabled Omar to establish a just and perpetual reward for the past and present services of the faithful. Careless of his own emolument, he assigned to Abbas, the uncle of the prophet, the first and most ample allowance of twenty-five thousand drachms or pieces of silver. Five thousand were allotted to each of the aged warriors, the relics of the field of Beder; and the last and meanest of the companions of Mahomet was distinguished by the annual reward of three thousand pieces. One thousand was the stipend of the veterans who had fought in the first battles against the Greeks and Persians; and the decreasing pay, as low as fifty pieces of silver, was adapted to the respective merit and seniority of the soldiers of Omar. Under his reign, and that of his predecessor, the conquerors of the East were the trusty servants of God and the people; the mass of the public treasure was consecrated to the expenses of peace and war; a prudent mixture of justice and bounty maintained the discipline of the Saracens, and they united, by a rare felicity, the despatch and execution of despotism with the equal and frugal maxims of a republican government. The heroic courage of Ali,  7 the consummate prudence of Moawiyah,  8 excited the emulation of their subjects; and the talents which had been exercised in the school of civil discord were more usefully applied to propagate the faith and dominion of the prophet. In the sloth and vanity of the palace of Damascus, the succeeding princes of the house of Ommiyah were alike destitute of the qualifications of statesmen and of saints.  9 Yet the spoils of unknown nations were continually laid at the foot of their throne, and the uniform ascent of the Arabian greatness must be ascribed to the spirit of the nation rather than the abilities of their chiefs. A large deduction must be allowed for the weakness of their enemies. The birth of Mahomet was fortunately placed in the most degenerate and disorderly period of the Persians, the Romans, and the Barbarians of Europe: the empires of Trajan, or even of Constantine or Charlemagne, would have repelled the assault of the naked Saracens, and the torrent of fanaticism might have been obscurely lost in the sands of Arabia.

In the victorious days of the Roman republic, it had been the aim of the senate to confine their councils and legions to a single war, and completely to suppress a first enemy before they provoked the hostilities of a second. These timid maxims of policy were disdained by the magnanimity or enthusiasm of the Arabian caliphs. With the same vigor and success they invaded the successors of Augustus and those of Artaxerxes; and the rival monarchies at the same instant became the prey of an enemy whom they had been so long accustomed to despise. In the ten years of the administration of Omar, the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles, destroyed four thousand churches or temples of the unbelievers, and edified fourteen hundred moschs for the exercise of the religion of Mahomet. One hundred years after his flight from Mecca, the arms and the reign of his successors extended from India to the Atlantic Ocean, over the various and distant provinces, which may be comprised under the names of, I. Persia; II. Syria; III. Egypt; IV. Africa; and, V. Spain. Under this general division, I shall proceed to unfold these memorable transactions; despatching with brevity the remote and less interesting conquests of the East, and reserving a fuller narrative for those domestic countries which had been included within the pale of the Roman empire. Yet I must excuse my own defects by a just complaint of the blindness and insufficiency of my guides. The Greeks, so loquacious in controversy, have not been anxious to celebrate the triumphs of their enemies.  10 After a century of ignorance, the first annals of the Mussulmans were collected in a great measure from the voice of tradition.  11 Among the numerous productions of Arabic and Persian literature,  12 our interpreters have selected the imperfect sketches of a more recent age.  13 The art and genius of history have ever been unknown to the Asiatics;  14 they are ignorant of the laws of criticism; and our monkish chronicle of the same period may be compared to their most popular works, which are never vivified by the spirit of philosophy and freedom. The Oriental library of a Frenchman  15 would instruct the most learned mufti of the East; and perhaps the Arabs might not find in a single historian so clear and comprehensive a narrative of their own exploits as that which will be deduced in the ensuing sheets.

I. In the first year of the first caliph, his lieutenant Caled, the Sword of God, and the scourge of the infidels, advanced to the banks of the Euphrates, and reduced the cities of Anbar and Hira. Westward of the ruins of Babylon, a tribe of sedentary Arabs had fixed themselves on the verge of the desert; and Hira was the seat of a race of kings who had embraced the Christian religion, and reigned above six hundred years under the shadow of the throne of Persia.  16 The last of the Mondars  *_0024 was defeated and slain by Caled; his son was sent a captive to Medina; his nobles bowed before the successor of the prophet; the people was tempted by the example and success of their countrymen; and the caliph accepted as the first-fruits of foreign conquest an annual tribute of seventy thousand pieces of gold. The conquerors, and even their historians, were astonished by the dawn of their future greatness: "In the same year," says Elmacin, "Caled fought many signal battles: an immense multitude of the infidels was slaughtered; and spoils infinite and innumerable were acquired by the victorious Moslems."  17 But the invincible Caled was soon transferred to the Syrian war: the invasion of the Persian frontier was conducted by less active or less prudent commanders: the Saracens were repulsed with loss in the passage of the Euphrates; and, though they chastised the insolent pursuit of the Magians, their remaining forces still hovered in the desert of Babylon.  !_0024

The indignation and fears of the Persians suspended for a moment their intestine divisions. By the unanimous sentence of the priests and nobles, their queen Arzema was deposed; the sixth of the transient usurpers, who had arisen and vanished in three or four years since the death of Chosroes, and the retreat of Heraclius. Her tiara was placed on the head of Yezdegerd, the grandson of Chosroes; and the same aera, which coincides with an astronomical period,  18 has recorded the fall of the Sassanian dynasty and the religion of Zoroaster.  19 The youth and inexperience of the prince (he was only fifteen years of age) declined a perilous encounter: the royal standard was delivered into the hands of his general Rustam; and a remnant of thirty thousand regular troops was swelled in truth, or in opinion, to one hundred and twenty thousand subjects, or allies, of the great king. The Moslems, whose numbers were reenforced from twelve to thirty thousand, had pitched their camp in the plains of Cadesia:  20 and their line, though it consisted of fewer men, could produce more soldiers, than the unwieldy host of the infidels. I shall here observe, what I must often repeat, that the charge of the Arabs was not, like that of the Greeks and Romans, the effort of a firm and compact infantry: their military force was chiefly formed of cavalry and archers; and the engagement, which was often interrupted and often renewed by single combats and flying skirmishes, might be protracted without any decisive event to the continuance of several days. The periods of the battle of Cadesia were distinguished by their peculiar appellations. The first, from the well- timed appearance of six thousand of the Syrian brethren, was denominated the day of succor. The day of concussion might express the disorder of one, or perhaps of both, of the contending armies. The third, a nocturnal tumult, received the whimsical name of the night of barking, from the discordant clamors, which were compared to the inarticulate sounds of the fiercest animals. The morning of the succeeding day  *_0025 determined the fate of Persia; and a seasonable whirlwind drove a cloud of dust against the faces of the unbelievers. The clangor of arms was reechoed to the tent of Rustam, who, far unlike the ancient hero of his name, was gently reclining in a cool and tranquil shade, amidst the baggage of his camp, and the train of mules that were laden with gold and silver. On the sound of danger he started from his couch; but his flight was overtaken by a valiant Arab, who caught him by the foot, struck off his head, hoisted it on a lance, and instantly returning to the field of battle, carried slaughter and dismay among the thickest ranks of the Persians. The Saracens confess a loss of seven thousand five hundred men;  !_0025 and the battle of Cadesia is justly described by the epithets of obstinate and atrocious.  21 The standard of the monarchy was overthrown and captured in the field - a leathern apron of a blacksmith, who in ancient times had arisen the deliverer of Persia; but this badge of heroic poverty was disguised, and almost concealed, by a profusion of precious gems.  22 After this victory, the wealthy province of Irak, or Assyria, submitted to the caliph, and his conquests were firmly established by the speedy foundation of Bassora,  23 a place which ever commands the trade and navigation of the Persians. As the distance of fourscore miles from the Gulf, the Euphrates and Tigris unite in a broad and direct current, which is aptly styled the river of the Arabs. In the midway, between the junction and the mouth of these famous streams, the new settlement was planted on the western bank: the first colony was composed of eight hundred Moslems; but the influence of the situation soon reared a flourishing and populous capital. The air, though excessively hot, is pure and healthy: the meadows are filled with palm- trees and cattle; and one of the adjacent valleys has been celebrated among the four paradises or gardens of Asia. Under the first caliphs the jurisdiction of this Arabian colony extended over the southern provinces of Persia: the city has been sanctified by the tombs of the companions and martyrs; and the vessels of Europe still frequent the port of Bassora, as a convenient station and passage of the Indian trade.


1 See the description of the city and country of Al Yamanah, in Abulfeda, Descript. Arabiae, p. 60, 61. In the xiiith century, there were some ruins, and a few palms; but in the present century, the same ground is occupied by the visions and arms of a modern prophet, whose tenets are imperfectly known, (Niebuhr, Description de l'Arabie, p. 296 - 302.)

*_0022 This extraordinary woman was a Christian; she was at the head of a numerous and flourishing sect; Moseilama professed to recognize her inspiration. In a personal interview he proposed their marriage and the union of their sects. The handsome person, the impassioned eloquence, and the arts of Moseilama, triumphed over the virtue of the prophetesa who was rejected with scorn by her lover, and by her notorious unchastity cost her influence with her own followers. Gibbon, with that propensity too common, especially in his later volumes, has selected only the grosser part of this singular adventure. - M.

2 The first salutation may be transcribed, but cannot be translated. It was thus that Moseilama said or sung: -

Surge tandem itaque strenue permolenda; nam stratus tibi thorus est. Aut in propatulo tentorio si velis, aut in abditiore cubiculo si malis; Aut supinam te humi exporrectam fustigabo, si velis, aut si malis manibus pedibusque nixam. Aut si velis ejus (Priapi) gemino triente aut si malis totus veniam. Imo, totus venito, O Apostole Dei, clamabat foemina. Id ipsum, dicebat Moseilama, mihi quoque suggessit Deus.

The prophetess Segjah, after the fall of her lover, returned to idolatry; but under the reign of Moawiyah, she became a Mussulman, and died at Bassora, (Abulfeda, Annal. vers. Reiske, p. 63.)

3 See this text, which demonstrates a God from the work of generation, in Abulpharagius (Specimen Hist. Arabum, p. 13, and Dynast. p. 103) and Abulfeda, (Annal. p. 63.)

**_0022 Compare a long account of this battle in Price, p. 42. - M.

!_0023 In Arabic, "successors." V. Hammer Geschichte der Assas. p. 14 - M.

4 His reign in Eutychius, tom. ii. p. 251. Elmacin, p. 18. Abulpharagius, p. 108. Abulfeda, p. 60. D'Herbelot, p. 58.

5 His reign in Eutychius, p. 264. Elmacin, p. 24. Abulpharagius, p. 110. Abulfeda, p. 66. D'Herbelot, p. 686.

6 His reign in Eutychius, p. 323. Elmacin, p. 36. Abulpharagius, p. 115. Abulfeda, p. 75. D'Herbelot, p. 695.

7 His reign in Eutychius, p. 343. Elmacin, p. 51. Abulpharagius, p. 117. Abulfeda, p. 83. D'Herbelot, p. 89.

8 His reign in Eutychius, p. 344. Elmacin, p. 54. Abulpharagius, p. 123. Abulfeda, p. 101. D'Herbelot, p. 586.

9 Their reigns in Eutychius, tom. ii. p. 360 - 395. Elmacin, p. 59 - 108. Abulpharagius, Dynast. ix. p. 124 - 139. Abulfeda, p. 111 - 141. D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, p. 691, and the particular articles of the Ommiades.

10 For the viith and viiith century, we have scarcely any original evidence of the Byzantine historians, except the chronicles of Theophanes (Theophanis Confessoris Chronographia, Gr. et Lat. cum notis Jacobi Goar. Paris, 1665, in folio) and the Abridgment of Nicephorus, (Nicephori Patriarchae C. P. Breviarium Historicum, Gr. et Lat. Paris, 1648, in folio,) who both lived in the beginning of the ixth century, (see Hanckius de Scriptor. Byzant. p. 200 - 246.) Their contemporary, Photius, does not seem to be more opulent. After praising the style of Nicephorus, he adds, and only complains of his extreme brevity, (Phot. Bibliot. Cod. lxvi. p. 100.) Some additions may be gleaned from the more recent histories of Cedrenus and Zonaras of the xiith century.

11 Tabari, or Al Tabari, a native of Taborestan, a famous Imam of Bagdad, and the Livy of the Arabians, finished his general history in the year of the Hegira 302, (A.D. 914.) At the request of his friends, he reduced a work of 30,000 sheets to a more reasonable size. But his Arabic original is known only by the Persian and Turkish versions. The Saracenic history of Ebn Amid, or Elmacin, is said to be an abridgment of the great Tabari, (Ockley's Hist. of the Saracens, vol. ii. preface, p. xxxix. and list of authors, D'Herbelot, p. 866, 870, 1014.)

12 Besides the list of authors framed by Prideaux, (Life of Mahomet, p. 179 - 189,) Ockley, (at the end of his second volume,) and Petit de la Croix, (Hist. de Gengiscan, p. 525 - 550,) we find in the Bibliotheque Orientale Tarikh, a catalogue of two or three hundred histories or chronicles of the East, of which not more than three or four are older than Tabari. A lively sketch of Oriental literature is given by Reiske, (in his Prodidagmata ad Hagji Chalifae librum memorialem ad calcem Abulfedae Tabulae Syriae, Lipsiae, 1776;) but his project and the French version of Petit de la Croix (Hist. de Timur Bec, tom. i. preface, p. xlv.) have fallen to the ground.

13 The particular historians and geographers will be occasionally introduced. The four following titles represent the Annals which have guided me in this general narrative. 1. Annales Eutychii, Patriarchoe Alexandrini, ab Edwardo Pocockio, Oxon. 1656, 2 vols. in 4to. A pompous edition of an indifferent author, translated by Pocock to gratify the Presbyterian prejudices of his friend Selden. 2. Historia Saracenica Georgii Elmacini, opera et studio Thomae Erpenii, in 4to., Lugd. Batavorum, 1625. He is said to have hastily translated a corrupt Ms., and his version is often deficient in style and sense. 3. Historia compendiosa Dynastiarum a Gregorio Abulpharagio, interprete Edwardo Pocockio, in 4to., Oxon. 1663. More useful for the literary than the civil history of the East. 4. Abulfedoe Annales Moslemici ad Ann. Hegiroe ccccvi. a Jo. Jac. Reiske, in 4to., Lipsioe, 1754. The best of our chronicles, both for the original and version, yet how far below the name of Abulfeda! We know that he wrote at Hamah in the xivth century. The three former were Christians of the xth, xiith, and xiiith centuries; the two first, natives of Egypt; a Melchite patriarch, and a Jacobite scribe.

14 M. D. Guignes (Hist. des Huns, tom. i. pref. p. xix. xx.) has characterized, with truth and knowledge, the two sorts of Arabian historians - the dry annalist, and the tumid and flowery orator.

15 Bibliotheque Orientale, par M. D'Herbelot, in folio, Paris, 1697. For the character of the respectable author, consult his friend Thevenot, (Voyages du Levant, part i. chap. 1.) His work is an agreeable miscellany, which must gratify every taste; but I never can digest the alphabetical order; and I find him more satisfactory in the Persian than the Arabic history. The recent supplement from the papers of Mm. Visdelou, and Galland, (in folio, La Haye, 1779,) is of a different cast, a medley of tales, proverbs, and Chinese antiquities.

16 Pocock will explain the chronology, (Specimen Hist. Arabum, p. 66 - 74,) and D'Anville the geography, (l'Euphrate, et le Tigre, p. 125,) of the dynasty of the Almondars. The English scholar understood more Arabic than the mufti of Aleppo, (Ockley, vol. ii. p. 34: ) the French geographer is equally at home in every age and every climate of the world.

*_0024 Eichhorn and Silvestre de Sacy have written on the obscure history of the Mondars. - M.

17 Fecit et Chaled plurima in hoc anno praelia, in quibus vicerunt Muslimi, et infidelium immensa multitudine occisa spolia infinita et innumera sunt nacti, (Hist. Saracenica, p. 20.) The Christian annalist slides into the national and compendious term of infidels, and I often adopt (I hope without scandal) this characteristic mode of expression.

!_0024 Compare throughout Malcolm, vol. ii. p. 136. - M.

18 A cycle of 120 years, the end of which an intercalary month of 30 days supplied the use of our Bissextile, and restored the integrity of the solar year. In a great revolution of 1440 years this intercalation was successively removed from the first to the twelfth month; but Hyde and Freret are involved in a profound controversy, whether the twelve, or only eight of these changes were accomplished before the aera of Yezdegerd, which is unanimously fixed to the 16th of June, A.D. 632. How laboriously does the curious spirit of Europe explore the darkest and most distant antiquities! (Hyde de Religione Persarum, c. 14 - 18, p. 181 - 211. Freret in the Mem. de l'Academie des Inscriptions, tom. xvi. p. 233 - 267.)

19 Nine days after the death of Mahomet (7th June, A.D. 632) we find the aera of Yezdegerd, (16th June, A.D. 632,) and his accession cannot be postponed beyond the end of the first year. His predecessors could not therefore resist the arms of the caliph Omar; and these unquestionable dates overthrow the thoughtless chronology of Abulpharagius. See Ockley's Hist. of the Saracens, vol. i. p. 130.

Note: The Rezont Uzzuffa (Price, p. 105) has a strange account of an embassy to Yezdegerd. The Oriental historians take great delight in these embassies, which give them an opportunity of displaying their Asiatic eloquence - M.

20 Cadesia, says the Nubian geographer, (p. 121,) is in margine solitudinis, 61 leagues from Bagdad, and two stations from Cufa. Otter (Voyage, tom. i. p. 163) reckons 15 leagues, and observes, that the place is supplied with dates and water.

*_0025 The day of cormorants, or according to another reading the day of reinforcements. It was the night which was called the night of snarling. Price, p. 114. - M.

!_0025 According to Malcolm's authorities, only three thousand; but he adds "This is the report of Mahomedan historians, who have a great disposition of the wonderful, in relating the first actions of the faithful" Vol. i. p. 39. - M.

21 Atrox, contumax, plus semel renovatum, are the well-chosen expressions of the translator of Abulfeda, (Reiske, p. 69.)

22 D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, p. 297, 348.

23 The reader may satisfy himself on the subject of Bassora by consulting the following writers: Geograph, Nubiens. p. 121. D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, p. 192. D'Anville, l'Euphrate et le Tigre, p. 130, 133, 145. Raynal, Hist. Philosophique des deux Indes, tom. ii. p. 92 - 100. Voyages di Pietro della Valle, tom. iv. p. 370 - 391. De Tavernier, tom. i. p. 240 - 247. De Thevenot, tom. ii. p. 545 - 584. D Otter, tom. ii. p. 45 - 78. De Niebuhr, tom. ii. p. 172 - 199.

Next: Chapter LI: Conquests By The Arabs. Part II.