Islam in the Levant – A Brief History of Bilad Al Sham
Bilad Al-Sham (“the land of Sham”; The Levant in English) is a tremendously important part of the world which has been at the heart of political and spiritual relevance to Muslims from their early history. It is difficult to underscore the significance of this blessed land enough, as well as its centrality to political developments involving the Muslim world in the last century.
We were informed of Al Sham’s significance in the hadith of the Rasul ﷺ which sums up the reason Muslims have an attachment to the region – a spiritual and political one that will last until the final hour. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Blessings to al-Shâm, blessings to al-shâm, blessings to al-Shâm!” (yâ tûbâ li al-Shâm). They asked why and he replied: “Because the wings of the angels of the Merciful are lowered over it.”
Geographically, it is defined as the region encompassing modern day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and most of Syria. The term was originally pronounced “al-sh’am” and means “the north” in relation to the Hijaz.
The Prophet (ﷺ) called al-Sham the purest of the lands of Allah, the place where religion, belief and safety are found in times of conflict. The conquest of Umar ibn al-Khattab (R.A) and the recapturing of Jerusalem by Salahuddin, which will be detailed later on, is a testament to this.
The term al-Sham does not have an inherent English definition but a rough approximation would be The Levant, by which name the region is generally known in the English language.
Conquest of al-Sham under Umar (R.A)
In the era of the Khilafah Rashida, Muslims under the leadership of Umar (R.A) succeeded in the conquest of modern-day Syria and its surrounding regions.
Umar was noted as being one of the most fair and just rulers in the region’s history. Upon commencing his role as Caliph, he famously proclaimed to the people under his rule:
I have no greater right on your money [i.e. public funds] than the guardian of an orphan has on the orphan’s property. If I am wealthy, I shall not take any of it. If I am needy, I shall take for my maintenance according to usage. You people – you have many rights on me which you should demand of me…… (Abu Yusuf, 117, quoted in Numani, 2004, 79).
With Abu Ubaida (R.A) and Khalid bin Waleed (R.A) serving as important commanders of Muslim armies on the Levantine front, Muslims were led by competent leaders who had the capacity and skills to manoeuvre conquests.
Earlier, under Abu Bakr’s (R.A) rule, Muslims had begun to penetrate Syrian areas and several months after Abu Bakr’s death, Damascus fell to Muslims in the year 635 C.E.
Soon after occurred one of the important and historic encounters between the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) and Muslims, the latter being heavily outnumbered with only 40,000 soldiers to the former’s army of 200,000.
After heavy fighting for several days, the Muslim army managed to gain the upper hand, with as many as 70,000 Byzantine soldiers being killed in the battle. When Byzantine Emperor Heraclius heard of the defeat, he is famously said to have left for Constantinople exclaiming “Farewell Syria; what a country I leave to the enemy!”. This battle became known as the Battle of Yarmouk and has gone down in the annals of history for its significance.
Subsequent conquests took place, bringing the cities Aleppo and Antioch into Muslim control by the year 637 C.E. With the capture of Antioch, most of modern-day Syria was under the control of Muslims.
The last and most significant of triumphs in this series was the capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar in the year 637 C.E. The Caliph arrived at the city of Jerusalem with his servant in rough clothes to the astonishment of many non-Muslims.
‘Umar documented a pact with the non-Muslims of Jerusalem which was foundational for the treatment of non-Muslim minorities as a whole and is a reflection of the general teachings of Islam regarding them. According to the terms of the treaty it:
guarantees them protection of life and property, of the churches and crosses…they should be subjected to no compulsion in matters of faith, nor shall they be in any way molested.
Umar’s achievements were not confined to military conquests; his contributions to social order, political systems and administrative set-up were unsurpassed in early Islamic history. Islamic rule was thus established in al-Sham and was to be dominant until the first Crusade.
The Crusades & Rise of Salahuddin
From the 7th century to the 10th century, the Muslims had a strong foothold over Al-Sham and its neighbouring regions such as modern day Iraq.
More generally, Islamic rule dominated the broader Middle East and Asia Minor, with Jerusalem a key city at the heart of the Muslim world. The 11th century, however, would see a remarkable power shift between Christians and Muslims.
Jerusalem would become the epicenter of conflict between Muslims and European Christians, manifest in the Crusades. Muslim political power was spread thinly and the Abbasid Caliph lacked political potency, resulting in disunity and localised contestation between Muslim power centers.
The First Crusade saw Jerusalem fall violently to the Franks in 1098 and sparked nearly 2 centuries of warfare in the Levant. Alongside the loss of the holy city, Muslims also lost control of other surrounding regions and cities such as Tripoli.
The Second Crusade attempted to build on the gains of the first by trying to capture more complete control of the Levant, but failed to achieve this goal, thus marking the end of Christian incursion into Muslim territory.
The intervening period also gave Muslims a chance to regroup and consolidate, a slow and gradual process that took place over several decades. The famous general Nur-ud-Din Zangi occupied Damascus and established a strong Muslim province which lay in close proximity to Christian principalities, posing a threat to their power.
The Second Crusade ended in 1155 C.E., with Christians left in a relatively more dire situation, having lost men and suffered political disunity. This period also saw the rise of the talisman Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi.
The death of Nur-ud-din Zangi saw Salahuddin work to unite the Muslims of northern Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Eygpt, effectively ending Zangid rule in al-Sham but ushering an Ayyubid era that was to prove decisive. With Muslim unity strengthened and Christians in a weaker position than the high water mark of the First Crusade gains, Salahuddin led his forces to the momentous Battle of Hittin on the 4th of July 1187 C.E, decimating the Christian army.
This battle was a turning point in the history of the crusades. Salahuddin subsequently took control of Beirut, Nazarath, Jaffa and Ascalon and on the 2nd of October, 1187 C.E., Jerusalem capitulated to Muslim forces.
Later Crusades failed and though the Muslims lost some battles, Muslim political power over al-Sham was largely restored.
The region was met with further violence in decades to come as the Mongol hordes massacred the Muslims of Baghdad before bringing Damascus under their control. The battle of Ayn Jaloot, however, saw the Muslims recapture the lands lost and indeed segments of the Mongols convert to Islam.
From this point on, the Levant was to remain in Muslim hands through the Ottoman period and up until the onset of colonialism and Western expansion in the 18th Century.
Ottoman Era and Western Designs
Throughout the ascendancy of the Ottomans, Al-Sham remained in Muslim hands. After initially having been the site of contest between the Mamluks and the Ottomans, it eventually settled under Ottoman control, particularly after the official transfer of Caliphal honours to the Ottomans under Sultan Yavuz Selim (Selim the stern), the father of Suleyman the Magnificent (may Allah be pleased with them both).
Al-Sham was to be designated a province (vilayet) of the Ottoman Caliphate and was known as different things over time. For most of its time under Ottoman control it was known as the Elayet-i-Şam (Levantine Province) for roughly 330 years from the year 1517.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century in Europe saw the balance of power tip in favour of Europe, while the Ottoman Caliphate fell behind from its initial position of ascendancy. Characterised by economic stagnation, intellectual decline and military defeats, the Caliphate and its territories were eyed feverishly by European powers, including those that were part of the Levant.
Initial European forays into the Caliphal Levant took place at the hands of France, which occupied parts of Egypt under Napoleon. In 1798, French forces advanced into al-Sham via the Sinai Peninsula, before being forced to retreat at the hands of Ottoman forces. Subsequent attempts brought further success for France, which managed to temporarily gain parts of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, before being forced back, this time with the assistance of the “Quadrilateral Alliance” of Britain, Russia, and the two German states.
While moves like Napoleon’s brought only temporary and limited success, it may be argued that it was in the domain of intellectual and cultural movement that the West had greater initial success vis-a-vis those living within Ottoman territories. This was a combination of early missionary work and the stoking of separatist, nationalist tendencies within minority groups present within the Ottoman Caliphate. The first foreign-funded missionary center was established in Beirut in the year 1820. In the year 1834 the prominent American missionary Eli Smith opened a Christian school for females.
With the Ottomans already vulnerable to revolts from Balkan territories, intellectual activity within the Levant was successful in arousing political aspirations within several minority groups. British, French and American missionaries, who worked via the auspices of educational and scientific institutions, served as a conduit for these ideas, which led in part to the development of the idea of “(pan) Arab solidarity”.
Both as a result of foreign political pressure and as a function of the Ottomans’ desire to “modernise”, constitutional reforms within the Caliphate altered the positions of minorities, giving them greater autonomy and thus giving further momentum to missionary work.
Arab Nationalism and separatist tendencies
Missionary work served as a conduit for political activism, and eventually for physical activity. With the Ottoman Caliphate’s influence in the Levant weakened, disturbances between the Druze and Maronite minorities broke out in 1841 in the mountainous regions of Lebanon. The British and French took sides in this conflict – the French siding with the Maronites and Britain with the Druze. This led to significant bloodshed throughout Lebanon before spilling over into the Greater Syrian region.
The fighting led to calls for political independence for various minority groups, and political intervention and activism became common place. It was characterised by separatist intentions, and various parties and groups began forming to this end. Groups such as the “Syrian Scientific Association”, formed in 1857, were designed to promulgate Arab nationalism. The “Secret Association”, formed in 1875, further fostered pan-Arab tendencies, encouraging animosity towards the Ottoman Caliphate by referring to it as the “Turkish” State and accusing it of snatching political power away from Arabs and thus leading to animosity between one set of Arabs and another (on the basis of religious difference).
As such tendencies grew and with the further political weakening of the Ottomans, the scene was set for insurrections and rebellions.
During the tumult that was World War 1, Britain encouraged its newly acquired agent Sharif Hussein, until then the Ottoman wali of Makkah, to launch the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans.
This revolt proved successful, as it paved the way for the secession of Arab lands away from the Ottomans, placing them under British and French mandates. In that same year, Britain and France agreed to the division of the former Muslim lands through the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the consent of Tzarist Russia. Following the Communist Revolution in Russia, the Communists would expose the British-French plan to the world.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement (alongside other such agreements) would define British and French influence in the Muslim world after the expected fall of the Caliphate. Under this agreement Britain was allocated control of Jordan, Iraq and a small area around Haifa. France was allocated control of South-Eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They were left free to decide on state boundaries and it was these arbitrary decisions which fashion the Muslim world into divided geopolitical regions to this day.
Zionism and Israel
The dismemberment of the Caliphate was not the only calamitous political outcome for the region. Rather, and driven also by the “Jewish question” which had long worried European powers, European leaders (led by Britain) advanced the cause of an “independent Jewish state” in the heart of the Muslim world.
Britain helped establish Israel, with the Balfour Declaration creating the political momentum necessary to lead to the birth of Israel in 1948. The acceptance of Israel as a legitimate political entity would be one that would frequent any discussion on contemporary Islamic politics.
Al Sham today
Bilad Al-Sham today (at the time of writing in 2016) is a region in flames. The war in Syria is now more than half a decade old, a result of the inevitable sense of oppression exacted on Muslims for more than 4 decades under a repressive Ba’athist regime. This has led to a refugee crisis of gargantuan proportions, not seen anywhere bar Africa since WW2.
While Israel remains intact in the region, it finds itself in a precarious position between various Muslim polities, arming itself to the teeth in preparation for an inevitable clash that will one day come to pass while the latter states (such as Jordan) are a model of mediocrity and treachery, unreflective of the sentiments of their citizens and the wider Muslim world.
Decades of experimentation with foreign modes of governance and endemic political subservience to foreign powers have left most people convinced that the present state of affairs is transient and a precursor to significant events to come. That the Muslims of Syria for instance, despite decades of oppression, could still maintain an aspiration for Islamic politics, shows that Muslims are still connected to their political heritage and are connected by ideas of Islamic unity.
Prophecies foretold by Rasul Allah ﷺ place Al Sham at the center of significant and even cataclysmic events which will lead to Muslim victories over their enemies. To the extent that Jerusalem has been foretold as a capital of a future Caliphate, the future holds glad tidings for Muslims vis-a-vis Al Sham.
But as ever, such success will be preceded by immense trials and sacrifice, which we witness in Syria today.
We ask Allah Most High to return the Levant to its rightful place at the “center of Islam” as it once was, and this is a matter that is easy for Him.
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