THE OPENING OF AL-SHAM
Al-Sham (Greater Syria) is bordered by the Euphrates River on the northeast and by Egypt on the southwest. It extends from the mountains of Tai' in the southeast to the Mediterranean and the Anadol Mountains in the northwest.
Its major cities are Damascus, Jerusalem, Nabulus, Homs, Hemah, Halab, Amman, Beirut, Askalan, Gaza, Saida; Sur, Tripoli, Ba'labek, Manbaj and Al-Ma'rah.
Al-Sham is a vast land with an abundance of blessings. It is full of gardens, farms and fields. Fruits are abundant and cheap, and there is generous rain and snow.
Al-Sham is a blessed and sacred land that Allah destined to be the place of revelations, the birthplace of prophets and a refuge for godly men.
Prophet Muhammad ~, the illiterate Arab of the Quraish, stood one day on the minaret, looked towards Al-Sham and said, "O Allah, soften their hearts. Soften their hearts." (Narrated by Ibn `Asakir from Jabir.) He ~ also said, "You will win victory over Al-Sham and be defeated for its sake and you will take hold of a fortress on its sea called Anafah, wherein Allah will send twelve thousand martyrs on the Day of Resurrection." (Narrated by Al-Tabarani in Al-Kabir and by Ibn 'Asakir from Abi 'Umamah.)
A man said, "Choose for me, Messenger of Allah." The Prophet ~ answered him, "I choose Al-Sham for you, for it is the place of the best Muslims, and Allah's choicest are from its cities, and Allah chose His elite from its people. If anyone refuses, may he be ruined and suffer from his own disloyalty, for Allah the Almighty promised to grant me victory over Al-Sham." He added, “Commit yourself to Al-Sham, for it is the best land of Allah wherein are the elite, the best of His servants." (Narrated by Ibn' Asakir.)
Zaid ibn Thabit reported: When we were with the Prophet ~ writing down the Qur'an on animal skins, he said, "Blessed be Al-Sham." They said, "Messenger of Allah, why is it blessed?" He replied, "Because the angels of Allah spread their wings over it." (Narrated by ibn Abi Shaibah, Imam Ahmad and Al-Tirmidhi.)
The Mother of the Faithful 'A'ishah reported: One day, the Prophet ~ woke up terrified saying, "To Allah we belong and to Allah we return." I asked him, "What is wrong? May you be dearer to me than my father and mother!" He answered, "The pillar of Islam was taken from behind my head so I missed it so much. Then I looked and found it fixed in the heart of Al-Sham. A voice told me, 'Muhammad! Allah chose Al-Sham for you for and His servants. He destined it to be a source of honor to you, a gathering place for your Resurrection, power and reputation. If Allah bestows grace on someone, He lets him live in Al-Sham and grants him some of its blessings. If He is wrathful on someone, He gets an arrow from His quiver that is hung in the center of Al-Sham and shoots him with it so that he will not be happy in this life or in the Hereafter." (Narrated by Ibn `Asakir.)
The trees of Al-Sham include pine, oak, poplar, olive, palm, walnut, and almond. Grapevines and raspberries grow there, as well as figs, apricots, pears, peaches, plums, oranges, lemons and pomegranates.
Other crops are wheat, oats, lentils, chickpeas, beans, corn and sesame.
'Abdul Rahman ibn Ziyad ibn An'am heard 'Amr ibn Jabir Al-Hadrami saying that he had heard the Messenger of Allah ~ say, "He who takes Damascus as his residence has survived."
'Abdul Rahman ibn Ziyad asked `Amr ibn Jabir, "Is this saying narrated from the Prophet?" 'Amr ibn Jabir Al-Hadrami replied, "Do you think I narrated on my behalf?" (Narrated by Ibn `Asakir.)
The truthful Prophet ~ said, "Truly, Al-Sham will be opened to you, so commit yourselves to a city called Damascus, for it is the best city in Al-Sham. The center of the believers is on a piece of its land called Ghuta, which is their stronghold." (Narrated by Ibn Al-Najjar from Jubair ibn Nafir.)
Damascus: the stronghold of AI-Sham
After Allah the Almighty had granted victory to the Muslims in the Battle of Al-Yarmuk, Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah assigned Bashir ibn Ka'b ibn Abi Al-Himiari to be the governor of Al-Yarmuk. Afterwards, he advanced till he reached Safar, where he learned that the Byzantine army was in Fihl, a place in Jordan, and that reinforcements had arrived from Horns to help the people of Damascus. Abu 'Ubaidah was thus confused whether to start by opening Damascus or Fihl. He wrote to the Commander of the Faithful 'Umar asking for his advice.
'Umar replied, "Start by Damascus and begin the fight, for it is the fortress of Al-Sham and the center of sovereignty. Distract the people of Fihl from you by cavalrymen directed towards them and the people of Palastine and Horns as well. If Allah helps us to open it before Damascus, this would please us. Otherwise, if it will not be opened until Damascus is opened, charge someone over Damascus to rule it, leave it and head towards Fihl, you and the rest of the generals raiding it. If Allah grants you victory, you and Khalid go to Horns and leave Shurahbil and `Amr to be in charge of Jordan and Palestine."
Consequently, Abu 'Ubaidah sent to Fihl ten generals of his army. They were: Abu Al-A'war Al-Salmi, 'Abd 'Amr ibn Yazid ibn 'Amir Al-Jarshi, 'Amir ibn Khath `amah, 'Amr ibn Sa'aq ibn Ka'b, Saifi ibn 'Ulbah ibn Shamil, 'Amr ibn Al-Habib ibn 'Umar, Libdah ibn ' Amir ibn Khath'amah, Bishr ibn 'Ismah, and 'Umarah ibn Makhash, who was assigned as their leader. 'Umarah marched with them from Safar till they reached a place near Fihl.
When the Byzantines realized that the Muslim army was heading towards them, they caused the water to gush out all around Fihl, making the land muddy. The Muslims were troubled by this action. The first to be besieged in Al-Sham were the people of Fihl, then those of Damascus.
Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah sent Dhul-Kala' with some soldiers camp in a place between Homs and Damascus as a protective measure. He also sent `Alqamah ibn Hakim and Masruq with an army to camp between Damascus and Palastine. Khalid ibn Al-Walid advanced with `Amr ibn Al-`As and Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah over his two flanks. The cavalry was under the command of 'Iyad and the infantry under Shurahbil.
The Siege of Damascus
Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Jarrah and Khalid ibn Al-Walid marched towards Damascus, which was ruled by Nastus ibn Nastus. The Muslims besieged Damascus and surrounded it completely. Abu 'Ubaidah surrounded it from one direction, 'Amr
ibn Al-`As from another, and Mazid from a third position. Meanwhile, Heraclius was in Homs.
The Muslims besieged Damascus for seventy nights. It was a difficult siege, for the Muslims frequently approached and attacked them with arrows and mangonels while the citizens of Damascus sought refuge within and pleaded for aid and reinforcements from Homs. However, Dhul-Kila` and his army were between Damascus and Homs. When the cavalry of Heraclius came from Homs to reinforce Damascus, the cavalry of Dhul-Kila` attacked them and prevented them from reaching Damascus. They camped on their way.
Hence, the people of Damascus still suffered and waited for support and reinforcements. When they realized that the aid of Heraclius could not reach them, they became weak and feeble, and the Muslims' hope to get hold of them increased. During this time, a son was born to the Patriarch of Damascus. The people were jubilant and feasted, neglecting their positions. However, no Muslims noticed this except Khalid ibn Al-Walid.
Khalid was sleepless; he never slept or let anybody sleep. He was on the alert, sending his spies to pick up information for him. He knew that the people of Damascus were drinking a lot of wine and were drowned in recklessness and joy. He made up his mind to attack the city walls that were opposite to him at night till he opened the city by force.
When the Byzantines reil1ized this, they hurried to the gates that were opposite to Abu 'Ubaidah, opened them for him and said, "Enter and save us from the people of that side!" The people of each gate signed an agreement.
Khalid ibn Al-Walid entered by force and met the leaders at the center of Damascus. He was fighting and pillaging, while the others were tolerant and peaceful. Thus, the people of Damascus reconciled with Khalid, so the city was opened through an agreement. Abu `Ubaidah sent to 'Umar telling him of their success. 'Umar then wrote to 'Ubaidah ordering him to send the army of Iraq to Iraq to join Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas. The opening of Damascus was in the month of Rajab 14 A.H.
After Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah succeeded in opening Damascus, he assigned Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan to rule it. He marched to Fihl, putting Khalid ibn Al-Walid over the vanguard and Shurahbil ibn Hasanah -who was ill charge of the town of Harb in Jordan -was the general over the people. Over the flanks were Abu 'Ubaidah and 'Amr ibn Al-`As, over the cavalry was Dirar ibn Al-Azwar, and over the infantry was 'Iyad ibn Ghanam.
The citizens of Fihl had left it and camped with their army in Bisan, a city ill Jordan in the basin of Sham Al-Ghur Huran and Palastine. Shurahbil ibn Hasanah camped in FihI separated from the enemy by water and mud.
Abu 'Ubaidah wrote to Commander of the Faithful 'Umar telling him of the situation. The Muslims were thinking about residing in Fihl peacefully without fighting till they heard from 'Umar. They were unable to advance towards the enemies because of the mud.
The Byzantines, under the command of Saqallar ibn Mikhraq, advanced and attacked the Muslims, who were cautious and alert at all times.
They fought fiercely day and night. When it grew dark, the Byzantines retreated and fled after Saqallar and Nastus were badly injured and captured together with their horses by the Muslims. It ended with the defeat of the Byzantines in Fihl.
Opening Bisan and Tabariyah
Shurahbil ibn Hasanah and 'Amr ibn Al-`As headed towards Bisan, while Abu Al-A'war Al-Salmi and the generals advanced towards Tabariyah.
The towns of Jordan heard about what had happened in Damascus, the death of Saqallar and Nastus, and the defeat of the Byzantines in Fihl and Raghda.
The Byzantines encountered the army of Shurahbil ibn Hasanah and they fought fiercely before fleeing. The rest of the Byzantines conciliated on the same terms as Damascus, and Shurahbil accepted.
The people of Tabariyah agreed to the same terms as the people of Bisan on the condition that they share the houses with the Muslims. They would leave half the houses for the Muslims and join together in the others. 'Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, was informed of the success.
The city of Horns lay between Halab and Damascus and it was enclosed by a wall. At its southern extreme was a fortified castle on a high hill. The people of Jazirah had sent to the Byzantine king begging him to send armies to Al-Sham and promising to help him. He agreed to their demand.
After Abu 'Ubaidah was granted victory in FihI and had allotted the spoils, he heard about the Byzantines' plans, so he marched with Khalid ibn Al-Walid and his army towards Homs. Abu 'Ubaidah consulted Khalid, who advised, "We fight the Byzantines till the coming of the reinforcements."
Some others suggested fortifying themselves. Abu 'Ubaidah objected to Khalid's opinion and favored to be fortified in trenches around Homs and wrote to 'Umar telling him that the Byzantines were facing him. The people of Homs said, "Keep to your city for they (the Arabs) are bare-footed. If they are afflicted with cold, their feet will be hurt."
When it was winter, the Byzantines lost toes to the severe weather, but no toe fell from a Muslim's foot. When the winter ended, an old Byzantine called his fellowmen to conciliate with the Muslims, but they refused. Another man suggested the same thing but failed as well. The Muslims attacked crying, "Allahu Akbar!" This caused many houses to collapse and many walls to crack. They cried, "Allahu Akbar!" for the second time and much more damage afflicted the Byzantines.
The people of Homs asked the Muslims for a treaty. The Muslims wondered what had changed their minds, yet they agreed and conciliated with them on the same terms as Damascus.
Abu `Ubaidah sent one fifth of the spoils with 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud to 'Umar and made the Companion 'Ubadah ibn Al-Samit the governor of Homs.
'Umar wrote to Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, "Allah has granted the Muslims victories in Al-Sham and Iraq, so send the army present with you to Al-Jazirah." The name means "the island" and it was so called because it was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was the homeland of the Mudar and Bakr tribes. It had many towns and various castles. Among its cities were Harran, Al-Riqqah, Ra's Al-`Ain, Nasibin, Mosul and others. 'Umar added, "Let the leader be one of three: Khalid ibn 'Arfatah, Hashim ibn 'Utbah or 'Iyad ibn Ghanam."
When the message of the Commander of the Faithful 'Umar reached Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, he mobilized an army including Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari, 'Umar ibn Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, and 'Uthman ibn Abi Al-`As ibn Bishr Al-Thaqafi, with 'Iyad ibn Ghanam as the leader.
'Iyad and his army arrived at Rahta', whose people negotiated with him and settled a treaty. The people of Harran agreed to jizyah, too. 'Iyad sent Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari to Nasibin. He also directed 'Umar ibn Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas to Ra's Al-`Ain with some cavalry to protect the rear of the Muslims from the Byzantines.
'Iyad himself marched with the rest of the army towards Dara, a city on a mountainside between Nasibin and Mardin. It had once been the camp of Dara the son of King Dara the son of King Qubadh, who fought with and was killed by Alexander and whose daughter Alexander then married. 'Iyad camped there and fought slightly, then opened it while Abu Musa opened Nasibin. Everything the Muslims had taken by force from Al-Jazirah was returned to the people. Thus, Al-Jazirah was the easiest to open.
Abu `Ubaidah marched to Antioch, which some armies of Qunsurin had overtaken. When he reached Mahrawiyah, which was two leagues from Antioch, he was confronted by a group of the enemy, whom he succeeded to disperse and send fleeing to the city. He surrounded the city, then its people agreed with him to pay jizyah and to be evacuated. Some of them departed while others remained, and he granted them security. However, they broke the pact and he fought them till he opened it again.
When Abu `Ubaidah had opened Qunsurin and made peace with its people on the same conditions as Horns, he proceeded towards Halab. Then he received the news that the people of Qunsurin had violated the treaty and betrayed, so he sent some armies to teach them a lesson.
Abu `Ubaidah then resumed the march with his army till he reached the borders of Halab, where he camped. Various groups of the Arabs went to him and reconciled with him to pay jizyah, then later declared their Islam.
Then he attacked Halab with 'Iyad ibn Ghanam Al-Fahri as the leader of his army. The citizens fortified themselves and the Muslims laid siege to them. After a while, the people of Halab were unable to endure the siege and asked to be secured and reconciled with the Muslims, asking for the safety of their souls, city, churches and forts.
It was said that Abu `Ubaidah did not see any of its citizens because they had moved to Antioch and sent to him asking for reconciliation. When Abu `Ubaidah reconciled with them, they returned to their city. As for its castle, it was besieged by the Muslims for four months or more. Some Muslims were killed on the way to it. Abu 'Ubaidah wrote to Caliph 'Umar:
In the name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Ever Merciful. To the servant of Allah, the Commander of the Faithful 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab from his governor in AI-Sham, Abu 'Ubaidah. Peace be upon you. I thank Allah and pray for His Messenger ~. Commander of the Faithful, Allah -glory be to Him- has opened through our hands the city of Qunsurin and the army of Nabibin launched several raids on the cities. Allah opened Halab for us through reconciliation, yet its castle was hard for us to assail. It has many people in it together with the patriarch, who schemed against us several times, killing many of our men who were thus rewarded with martyrdom, and may Allah punish him rightly. We tried to trick him but failed, and I have thought about retreating and lifting the siege and going to the cities between Halab and Antioch. I am waiting for your reply. Peace be upon you and on all the Muslims.
I have received the letter sent by your messengers and I was pleased at what I heard of the openings and the victory over your enemies as well as those who achieved martyrdom. As for what you mentioned about going to the cities between Halab and Antioch, retreating from besieging the castle and its inhabitants, I perceive this to be a wrong decision. How could you leave a man whose residence you have approached and taken hold of his city? The retreat will cause all the others to think you failed before him and did not face him. This will certainly defame you and give him fame and good reputation. Besides, this action will give an opportunity for those who are keen to get hold of you and give the Byzantine leaders and common people a chance to infringe upon you, and the spies will go back and write to their kings about your weak position. Or leave him till Allah helps you to kill him or till he surrenders to you- Allah willing- or till Allah passes his judgment, for he is the best judge.
So spread your cavalry in the plains, the dangerous places, the narrow places, the wide places, the mountains and the valleys. Launch raid after raid. If any demand conciliation, accept it from them, and if any ask for peace, grant them peace. May Allah be our guardian for you and the Muslims. I will send this letter of mine with a group of Hadramaut and the others, as well as some chiefs from Yemen of those who dedicated themselves to Allah and are seeking jihad for Allah’s sake. They are cavalrymen and bold Arabs and the reinforcements will reach you one after the other, Allah willing. Peace be upon you.
'Umar sealed the letter and gave it to 'Abdullah ibn Qurt and Jadah ibn Jubair, the two messengers of 'Ubaidah to 'Umar. The reinforcements reached Abu `Ubaidah and among them was one of the servants of Banu Tariff who was of the ruling family of Kindah called Damis. He was known as The Man of Horrors, a name that he deserved. He was black, very tall and a bold warrior widely known in the land of Kindah.
When Damis saw how the castle was fortified, he pondered to find a means to enter the stronghold.
Finally he determined to climb the fortress with some Muslims, so he did. They found the gate guards asleep, so they killed them. Then they proceeded to the second gate, whose guards were also asleep. They killed the guards, thus opening the two doors and permitting the army to enter. They fought hard. Khalid entered the castle with his advancing army, and also Dirar ibn Al-Azwar got in.
When the Byzantines saw the Muslim army, they realized that they would not endure to fight them, so they dropped their weapons saying, "Help! Help!" and stopped fighting. Thus, the Muslims restrained themselves.
Meanwhile, Abu 'Ubaidah came with the Muslim soldiers. Khalid ibn Al- Walid said, "Abu 'Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah, the Byzantines plead for peace and we have stopped assaulting them till you come and issue your orders."
Abu `Ubaidah asked them to embrace Islam and some of their chiefs did. Consequently, Abu 'Ubaidah gave them their possessions and people back.
He spared the peasants from death or capture. He took oaths from them to be like the people who set an agreement or accepted to pay jizyah. This meant that they had to keep their promises and respect the agreement. Then he let them go out of the castle
The Muslims kept discussing Damis and his schemes and treated his wounds till they healed. Abu 'Ubaidah rewarded generously from what Allah had bestowed on them.