Could a New Islamic Era Emerge by Shading Light on the Past?
Here below are views of the Great Scholar Abdalla Yusuf Ali, who wrote this study around 1934, people may apply an up-to-date names and evens and contemplate.
The contemporaneous of the Roman and Persian Empires
The conflict between the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and the Persian King Khusrau Parwiz (Khosroes II) is referred to in Surat Al-Rum 30. It will therefore be convenient now to review very briefly the relations of these two great empires and the way in which they gradually decayed before the rising sun of Islam. The story hasn’t only political significance, but a deep spiritual significance in world history.
2. If we take the Byzantine Empire as a continuation of the Empire that grew out of the Roman Republic, the first conflict took place in the year 53 B.C. when the Consul Crassus (famous of his richness) was defeated in his fight with the Parthian. If we go back further, to the time of the Greek City States, we can refer back to the invasion of Greece by Xerous in the years 480-479 B.C. and the effective repulse of that invasion by sea and land by the united co-operation of the Greek States. The Persian Empire in those days extended to the western (Mediterranean) coast of Asia Minor. But as it included the Greek cities of Asia Minor, there was constant communication in war and peace between Persia and the Hellenic (Greek) world. The cities in the Greece proper had their own rivalries and jealousies, and Greek cities or parties often invoked the aid of the Great King (Shahinshah of Persia) against their opponents. By the Peace (Accord) of Antalcidas of 387 B.C., Persia became –practically- the suzerain power of Greece. Peloponnese/Achaean was under the Dynasty of Persia.
3. Then comes the rise of Macedonia and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire year 330 B.C. This spread the Hellenic influence as far east as Central Asia and as far south as Syria (including Palestine), Egypt, and Northern Africa generally. Rome in its expansion westward reached the Atlantic, and in its expansion eastwards absorbed the territories of Alexander’s successors, and became the mistress of all countries with a Mediterranean sea-coast. The nations of the Roman Empire “insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people”*.
4. Meanwhile there were native forces in Persia which asserted themselves and established the Dynasty of the Arsacids (Ashkanian) year 10 A.D. This was mainly the outcome of a revolt against Hellenism, and its spear-point was in Parthia. The Arsacids won back Persia proper, and established the western boundary of Persia in a line drawn roughly from the eastern end of the Black Sea southwards to the Euphrates at a point north-east of Palmyra. This would include the region of the Caucasus (excluding the Black Sea cost) and Armenia and Lower Mesopotamia, in the Persian Empire. And this was the normal boundary between Persia and the Roman Empire until the Islamic Empire wiped out the old Monarchy of Persia and a great part of the Byzantine Empire, and annexed Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and gradually Asia Minor, finally extinguishing the whole of the Byzantine Empire.
5. Another stage in Persian history was reached when the Arsacids were overthrown, and the Sasanians came into power under Ardashir I, the year 225 A.D. The Sasanian Empire was in a sense a continuation of the Peloponnese/Achaean Empire, and was a reaction against the corruptions of the Zoroastrian religion which had crept in under the Parthian Dynasty of the Arsacids. But the religious reforms were only partial. There was some interaction between Christianity and the Zoroastrian religion. For example, the great mystic Mani, who was a painter as well as a religious leader, founded the sect of Manichaeism. He flourished in the reign of Shapur I, Years 241-272 A.D. and seems to have preached a form of Gnostic faith, in which Alexandrian philosophy was mixed with Christian doctrine and the Old Persian belief in the dual principle of good and evil. The Sasanians failed to purify religion and only adhered to fire-worship as the chief feature of their cult. In manners and morals they succumbed to the vices of arrogance, luxury, sensuality, and monopoly of power and privilege, which it is the office of Religion to denounce and root out. That office was performed by Islam.
6. When the seat of the Roman Empire was transferred to Constantinople (Byzantium) in the time of Constantine –year 330 A.D., the conflict between Rome and Persia became more and more frequent. The true Peninsula of Arabia was never conquered either by Rome or by Persia, although its outlying parts were absorbed in either the one or the other at various times. It is interesting to notice that the Roman Emperor Philip –year 244-249 A.D. was an Arab born and that the architecture of the Nabataea’s in the city of Petra and in Hijr shows a mixture of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and indigenous Arab cultures.
7. Arabia received the cultural influences of Persia and the Byzantine Empire, but was a silent spectator of their conflicts until Islam was brought into the main currents of world politics.
8. The Yemen coast of Arabia, which was easily accessible by sea to Persia, was the battle ground between the Persian Empire and the Abyssinians Empire just across the Red Sea. Abyssinia and Arabia had had cultural and political relations for many centuries. Amharic, the ruling language of Abyssinia, is closely allied to Arabic, and the Amharic people went as colonists and conquerors from Arabia through Yemen. Shortly before the birth of the holy Prophet, Abyssinia had been in occupation of Yemen for some time, having displaced a Jewish dynasty. The Abyssinians professed the Christian religion, and although their Church was doctrinally separate from the Byzantine Church, there was a great deal of sympathy between the Byzantines and the Abyssinians on account of their common Christian religion. One of the Abyssinian viceroys in Yemen was Abraha, who conceived the design (conspiracy and plotting) of destroying the Temple of Mecca (Al-Ka’aba). He led an expedition, in which elephants formed a conspicuous feature, to invade Mecca and destroy Al-Ka’aba. He met a disastrous repulse, which is referred to in the Qur’an (Surat Al-Fil 105). This event was in the year of the holy Prophet’s birth, and marks the beginning of the great conflict which enabled Arabia eventually to obtain a leading place among the nations of the world. The year usually given for the Prophet’s birth is 570 A.D., though the date must be taken as only approximate, being the middle figure between 569 and 571, the extreme possible limits. The Abyssinians having been overthrown, the Persians were established in Yemen, and their power lasted there until about the 7th year of the Hijra (approximately 628 A.D.) when Yemen Accepted Islam.
9. Outstanding event in Byzantine history in the 6th century was the reign of Justinian (year 527-565), and in Persian history the reign of Anaushirwan (year 531-579). Justinian is well-known for his great victories in Africa and for the great Digest he made of Roman law and Jurisprudence. In spite of the scandalous life of his queen Theodora, he occupies an honorable place in the history of the Roman Empire. Anaushirwan is known in Persian history as the “just king”. They were contemporary rulers for a period of 34 years. In their time the Roman and Persian Empires were in close contact both in peace and war. Anaushirwan just missed being adopted by the Roman Emperor. If the adoption had come off, he would have become one of the claimants to the Byzantine throne. He invaded Syria and destroyed the important Christian City of Antioch in year 540-541. It was only the able defense of Belisarius –the Roman general- which saved the Roman Empire from further disasters in the east. On the other hand the Turanian Avars, driven in front of the Turks, had begun the invasion of Constantinople from the western side. Justinian also made an alliance with the Abyssinians and Christians nation, and the Abyssinians and the Persians came into conflict in Yemen. Thus world conditions were hemming in Arabia on all sides. It was Islam that not only saved Arabia, but enabled it to expand and to play a prominent part in the world history after the annihilation of the Persian Empire and the partial destruction of the Roman Empire.
10. The sixth century of the Christian era and the first half of the seventh century were indeed a marvelous period in the world’s history. Great events and transformations were taking place throughout the then world. We have referred to the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire which dominated the civilized portions of Europe, Africa and Western Asia. The only two other countries of note in history in those days were India and China. In India there was the glorious period of Harsha Vardhana (606-647), in which art, science, and literature flourished, political power was on a healthy basis, and religious enquiry was bringing India and China into close relationship. The famous Chinese Buddhist traveler Yuang-Chwang (or Yuang-Tsang or Hsuan-Tsang) performed his pious pilgrimage to India in the year 629-45. In China the glorious T’ang Dynasty was established in the year 618. The Chinese art of that Dynasty led the world. In political power Chinese extended from the Pacific in the East to the Persian Gulf on the west. There was unity and peace, and China –hitherto more or less isolated- received ambassadors from Persia, Constantinople, Magadha, and Nepal in the year 643. But all this pomp and glitter had in it the seeds of decay. Persia and Byzantine collapsed in the next generation. India was in Chaos after Harsha’s death. The Chinese Empire could not for long remain free from the “Barbarians”: the Great Wall, begun in the third century B.C., was soon to be out of date. By about 683 the Khitans from the north-west and the Tibetans from the south were molesting China. The Germans, the Goths, and the Vandals were pressing further and further into Roman Empire. From Asia the Avars and the Turks were both pressing on the Romans and the Persians, and sometimes playing off the one against the other. The simpler and less sophisticated nations, with their ruder but more genuine virtues, were gaining ground.
Into that entire welter came the Message of Islam, to show up, as by galvanic action, the false from the vigorous and pure. The ground of History was being prepared for the New Birth in Religion.
11. Anaushirwan was succeeded on the Persian throne by an unworthy son Hurmuz (579-590). Had it not been for the talents of his able General Bahram, his Empire would have been ruined by the invasions of the Turks on one side and of the Romans on the other. Eventually Bahram rebelled, and Hurmuz was deposed and killed. His son Khusrau Parwiz (Chosroes II) took refuge with the Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who practically adopted him as a son and restored him to the Persian throne with Roman arms. Khusrau reigned over Persia from 590 to 628. It was him that the holy Prophet addressed one of his letters, inviting him to Islam towards the end of his life. It is not certain whether the letter was actually delivered to him or to his successor, as it is not easy to calculate precisely synchronous dates of the Christian era with those of the earliest years of the Hijri era.
12. In Arabic and Persian records the term Kisra refers usually to Khusrau Parwiz (Chosroes II) and sometimes to Khusrau Anaushirwan (Khosrose I), while the term Khusrau is usually treated as generic, as the title of the Kings of Persia generally. But this is by no means always the case. “Kisra” is an Arabic form of “Khusrau”. The name of Anaushirwan has been shortened from the time of Firdausl onwards to Nushirwan. The Pehlevi form is Anoshek-ruwan, “of immortal soul”.
13. The Roman Emperor Maurice (582-602) had a mutiny in his army, and his capital revolted against him. The army chose a simple centurion called Phocas as Emperor and executed Maurice himself. The usurper Phocas ruled from 602 to 610, but his tyranny soon disgusted the Empire. Heraclius, the governor (exarch) of a distant province in Africa, raised the standard of rebellion, and his young son, also called Heraclius, was sent to Constantinople to depose Phocas and assume the reins of power. It was this younger Heraclius, who ascended the throne of Constantinople in 610 and ruled till 642, who figures in Muslim history as Hiraql.
14. Khusrau Parwiz called himself the son of the Emperor Maurice. During his refuge at Constantinople he had married a Byzantine wife. In (Nizami’s Romance) she is known as Maryam. According to some historians she was a daughter of the Emperor Maurice, but Gibbon throws doubt on that relationship. In any case he used the resources of the Persian Empire to fight the usurper Phocas. He invaded the Byzantine Empire in 603. The war between the Persians and the Romans became a national war and continued after the fall of Phocas in 610. The Persians had sweeping victories, and conquered Aleppo, Antioch, and the chief Syrian cities, including Damascus, in 611. Jerusalem fell to their arms in 614-15, just 7 to 8 years before the sacred Hijra. The city was burnt, the burial-place of Christ was itself insulted, and many relics, including the “True Cross” on which the Christians believed that Christ had been crucified, were carried away to Persia. The priests of the Persian religion celebrated in exultant triumph over the priests of Christ. In this pillage and massacre the Persians were assisted by crowds of Jews, who were discontented with the Christian domination, and the Pagan Arabs to whom any opportunity of plunder and destruction in itself was welcomed. It is probably this striking event –this victory of the Persians over the Roman Empire- which is referred to in Surat Al-Rum -30 of the holy Qur’an. The Pagan Arabs naturally sided with the Persians in their destructive zeal, and thought that the destruction of the Christian power of Rome would also mean a setback to the Message of the Prophet, the true successor of Jesus. For our holy Prophet, he had already begun his mission and promulgation of God’s Revelation in the year 610 A.D. While the whole world believed that the Roman Empire was being killed by Persia, it was revealed to him that the Persian victory was short-lived and that within a period of a few years the Romans would conquer again and deals a deadly blow at the Persians. The Pagan Arabs, who were then persecuting the holy Prophet’s in Mecca, hoped that their persecution would destroy the holy Prophet’s new Revelation. In fact both their persecution and deadly blows aimed by the Persians and the Romans at each were instruments in God’s Hands for producing those conditions which made Islam thrive and increase until it became the predominant power in the world.
15. The Persian flood of conquest did not stop with the conquest of Jerusalem. It went on to Egypt, which was also conquered and annexed to the Persian Empire in 616. The Persian occupation reached as far as Tripoli in North Africa. At the same time another Persian army ravaged Asia Minor and reached right up to the gates of Constantinople. Not only the Jews and Pagan Arabs, but the various Christian sects which had been persecuted as heretics by the Romans, joined in the fray and helped the Persians. The conditions of Heraclius became indeed pitiable. With all these calamities, he had to deal with the Avars who were attacking from the other side of Constantinople, which was practically in a state of siege. Famine and pestilence added to the horrors of the situation.
16. In these desperate circumstances Heraclius conceived a brilliant plan. He knew that the Persians were weak in sea power. He used his sea power to attack them in the rear. In 622 (the year of the Hijra) he transported his army by sea through the Aegean Sea to the bay just south of Taurus Mountains. He fought a decisive battle with the Persians at Issus, in the same plain in which Alexander the Great had defeated the Persians of his day in his famous march to Syria and Egypt. The Persians were taken by surprise and routed. But they had still a large force in Asia Minor, which they could have brought into the play against Romans if Heraclius had not made another and equally unexpected dash by sea from the north. He returned to Constantinople by sea, made a treaty with the Avars, and with their help kept the Persians at bay round the capital. Then he led three campaigns, in 623, 624 and 625, along the southern shore of the Black Sea and took the Persians again in the rear in the region round Trebizond and Kars. Through Armenia he penetrated into Persia and got into Mesopotamia. He was now in a position to strike at the very heart of the Persian Empire. A decisive battle was fought on Tigris near the city of Mosul in December 627. Before this battle, however he had taken care to get the alliance of the Turks, and with their help to relieve Constantinople in 626 against the Persians and the treacherous Avars who had then joined the Persians.
17. Heraclius celebrated his triumph in Constantinople in March 628. Peace was then made between the two Empires on the basis (status as it is). Heraclius in pursuance of a vow he had made, went south in the autumn to Emessa (Hims) and from there marched on foot to Jerusalem to celebrate his victories, and restore to its place the holy Cross which had been carried away by the Persians and was returned to the Emperor as a condition of peace. Heraclius’s route was strewn with costly carpets, and he thought that the final deliverance had come for his people and his empire. Either in the way, or in Jerusalem, he met a messenger from the holy Prophet, carrying a letter inviting him to the True Faith as renewed in the living Apostle of the age. He apparently received the messenger with courtesy. But he did not realize the full import of the new World which was being shaped according to God’s plans, and the future that was opening out through the New Revelation. Perhaps in his heart he felt impressed by the story which he heard from the Arabs about the holy Prophet, but the apparent grandeur of his empire and the pride of his people prevented him from openly accepting the renewed Message of God. He caused a search to be made for any Arab who was sufficiently acquainted with the Prophet to tell him something about him. Abu Sufyan was then trading in a caravan in Syria. He was a cousin of the Prophet, and belonged to the Umaiya branch of family. He was sent for to Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina).