It is entirely possible to believe that the Arab (Islamic) - Byzantine clash took place as a result of the efforts expended by both parties to expand over one and the same region in the north of the Arabian Peninsula, following the collapse of the Sasanian Empire. It seems that the Romans fell victim to a historical shock, albeit not an entirely unexpected one.


THIS WAS THE CONJUNCTION between the Byzantine succession crisis in Constantinople that erupted in 638 AD, and the outbreak of conflict between the sons of Heraclius from his two wives, especially the inauguration of Heraclonas as ‘Augustus’ until the installing of Constans II (the grandson of Heraclius from His son, Heraclius Constantine) to take over this position. This was exacerbated by the death of the emperor in 641, which diverted the attention of senior military leaders and bureaucrats from what was taking place beyond the royal palace. In addition to all these reasons, there was a split between the leaders of the Byzantine army. And it was at this moment of preoccupation with internal conflicts that the decisive battle of Yarmouk took place, which decided the fate of Syria and paved the way for the conquest of Egypt.

The Byzantine victory over the Sasanians

In the year 626 AD, Emperor Heraclius was able to repel the Persian attack on Constantinople and defeat the Sasanians, and this victory enabled Heraclius to carry out a counterattack against them which ended with the deposition of Emperor Khosrow II and his killing by his son Sheroe / Siroe on the twenty-eighth of February 628 AD. Emperor Shiroe then sought a peace treaty with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, which the latter accepted with conditions, namely: the restoration of the borders to what they had been in the year 591, the release of all prisoners, and the return of the Holy Cross. Emperor Shiroe accepted these conditions and the commander Shahrbaraz (the father of al-Muʽāwiya) was ordered to withdraw from the Byzantine lands and return to Persia. Heraclius concluded his victories by returning the Holy Cross to Jerusalem on the twenty-first of March in the year 630 AD. (Jerusalem, under the monk Antiochus Strategos had fallen into the hands of the Persians in the year 614 AD).

Extrapolating from the events of history and the control of Heraclius over his former colonies in the Levant and Palestine, we know that Al-Muʽāwiya, one of the Arab generals who helped him in his war against the Persians, was appointed walī over the Levant, and one ‘Muḥammad’ was appointed over the Petra region, on the condition that they pledged their allegiance to him and sent annual taxes to Byzantium. Heraclius withdrew his army to Constantinople, retaining only weak garrisons in Egypt and Palestine after leaving Al-Muʽāwiya and Muḥammad to exercise autonomous control.

Later, an agreement was concluded on the occupation of Jerusalem between the Arabs of Muḥammad, the Jews, and the Christians, in which an anti-Byzantine coalition (as explained below) was formed out of the desire of the Jews to take control of Jerusalem and build their holy temple in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, whom they await in line with their prophecies. This became an opportunity for ‘Muḥammad’ to impose his full control over those territories. After the treaty was concluded between the Persians and the Byzantines, Byzantium was left in a state of exhaustion. Since this new coalition formed a strong army, it did not content itself with seizing control of Jerusalem and Palestine, but went on to occupy the rest of the Byzantine colonies at the time of Heraclius’ death in 641 AD. This was at the time of the power struggle between the sons of Heraclius, as we mentioned, which distracted them to a large extent from taking an interest in the Arab incursions.

In 636 Byzantine forces completed their complete withdrawal from the Levant. Only a few garrisons of local tribesmen remained in the country, and so the authority of Byzantium evaporated. This encouraged local leaders to become independent and take over power. Islamic sources tell us that the conquests of the Levant and Iraq took place following the death of the Prophet ‘Muḥammad’ in the year 632 AD. Non-Arab sources, however, affirm the complete opposite, with some sources stating that ‘Muḥammad’ the Messenger of ‘Islam’ was alive at the time at the head of the Arab armies that conqured Persia, Iraq, the Levant and Egypt, and that the apostasy wars took place during his reign and not during the reign of Abū Bakr as stated in the Islamic heritage.

This is what documents of the peoples occupied by the Arabs affirm, so we shall now turn to the evidence.

The Byzantine historian Michael Psellos (1078-1018) mentions in his Ιστορία σύντομος (‘Brief History’) that Emperor Heraclius, on his return from his war with the Persians, met the Prophet Muḥammad, and writes:

On his victorious return home the Emperor [Heraclius] met Muḥammad, the leader of the tribal Saracens (Arabs), who came from Yathrib (Iraq?). This man asked for a concession to establish a colony, and he was given permission to do so. He (i.e. Muḥammad) was also that person who, after becoming rich thanks to his wife [Khadīja], proceeded to mislead his people. He was provided with warriors, and first plundered Syria and then proceeded to destroy the lands of the Romans. This is enough  about him.

There are Qur’ānic references, the most important of which is in Sūrat al-Rūm, indicating a positive view of the Byzantines. The Lebanese writer Ḥusām ‘Aytānī mentions in his book Al-Futūḥāt al-‘Arabiyya fī Riwāyat al-Maghlūbīn (‘The Arab Conquests as told by the Conquered’) that the beginning of the friction between the Arabs and the Romans began shortly before the conquests. This is in addition to other western sources that ascribe the failure of this friendship to ‘Islam’ feeding the Arabs with the spirit of marauding.

In the parts that remain of the Syriac Zīqūnīn Yearbook [1] the writer mentions the forced Christianization of the Jews by order of the Byzantine Emperor, and mentions in the events of the Greek year 932 [620/621] AD the following:

The Arabs invaded the land of Palestine and the lands up to the great Euphrates River. The Romans fled and crossed to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where the Arabs imposed their control over them. The first king among them was a man called Muḥammad whom they called a ‘prophet’ since he turned them away from their pagan worship and taught them that there is only one God, the God of the universe. He also laid down some laws due to their being immersed in the worship of devils and idols, especially the worship of trees. They called him a ‘prophet’ and ‘the Messenger of God’ because this Muḥammad showed them that God is one, and it was thanks to his guidance that they defeated the Romans in battle. He also laid down laws that satisfied their desires. This nation is highly immoral and lustful. They despise and reject every law that Muḥammad or any other God-fearing person legislated for them, if it did not answer to their lustful pleasures. Instead, they accept any laws that satisfy their desires and wishes, even if no one legislated them, saying, “This was legislated by the Prophet, the Messenger of God. Indeed it is a Sunna of his that God commands us to follow!” Muḥammad ruled over them for seven years.

The Great Syriac writer Mar Michael (1166-1199) mentions the following in his history:

In the year 933 [in the Greek calendar], the twelfth year of Heraclius, and the 33rd year of Chosroes, the kingdom of the Arabs (the Muslims) was initiated when a person called Muḥammad appeared in the region of Yathrib [in present-day Jordan] from the tribe of Quraysh tribe who said that he was a prophet. His followers were called ‘Muslims’ or ’Ishmaelites’ or ‘Hagarites’ … And he began to send delegations to Palestine hoping that they would hear what would induce them to believe him and recognize him.  He himself went several times without suffering any harm, seizing booty and returning laden and so they were convinced of what he said, due to their inclination for wealth which became a habit for them, seizing it and then returning back, including those who did not yet obey him. They plundered along with them because they saw that his followers had thus enriched themselves, and so they followed him along with the others.

The Byzantine historian Theophanes the Confessor (752-818) [2] in his Chronographia records life of the Prophet Muhammad prior to his prophethood saying:

When Muḥammad went to Palestine he lived with the Jews and Christians, and inquired deeply into some of their writings. He suffered from epileptic seizures, and when his wife [Khadīja] noticed this she became very concerned because she was a member of the elite associated with a man who was not only miserable, but also an epileptic. He proceeded to propitiate her, saying: “I see an angel called Gabriel, and I am fainting because I cannot bear to see him”. And she had a friend, a ‘crippled’ monk (one excommunicated from the official church) living there in exile due to the corruption of his faith. So [Khadīja] told him everything, even the name of the angel. Wanting to reassure her he said: “He has spoken the truth, because this angel was sent to all the prophets”.[3]

Where did the name ‘Saracen’ come from?

The Latin term Saraceni has an unknown etymology. However, it likely comes from the Greek Σαρακηνή (Sarakēnḗ) with some claiming that it derives from the Semitic three-letter root srq ‘to steal, maraud, plunder’, or perhaps more specifically from the noun sāriq (‘ thief’) in the plural form sāriqīn, meaning ‘ thieves, plunderers’.

The Saracens were mainly made up of nomads and primitive tribes of savages living in the Arabian desert, with no education, culture, civilization or knowledge of the highly developed world like that of the Byzantines who controlled the region. They initiated what they call the ‘Islamic Opening’ – a later term from the Abbasid era and more correctly ‘the Muḥammadan Arab raids’ – not as a regular army, but as a group of bandits who terrorized and destroyed the towns and villages that lay in their path. They plundered, destroyed, stole, raped and took over control of countries by means of the sword, they sold children as slaves and took women as captives.

During the course of their initial disastrous and violent expansion into Phoenicia, Colonia, Aelia Capitolina[4] and Syria (a term that covers the present-day Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Syria) and other regions, we have eyewitness reports of the devastation that they visited on the lands they occupied. History records eyewitness accounts of the extent of the destruction they caused in the lands they came across, eyewitness accounts of the affliction that Arab ‘Muslims’ overwhelmingly brought down upon their enemies of all faiths.

Ptolemy’s second-century work Geographia [5] describes the geographical location of the Saracens as the region to the north of the Sinai Peninsula and states that a people called οἱ Σαρακηνοί (hoi Sarakēnoí) were living in the Sinai northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius gives an account in which Pope Dionysius of Alexandria mentioned the Saracens in a letter while describing the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Decius, saying:

many in the Arabian mountains were enslaved by the barbarian Sarakēnoí.

The Augustinian History also refers to an attack by the Saracens on the army of Pescenius Niger in Egypt in 193 AD, but provides little to identify them. The Romans classified them as ‘barbarians’.

The above linguistic analysis seems to indicate clearly that the Saracens were ‘barbarian invaders’, as their contemporaries called them. This has been documented by people of all faiths: Jews, Christians, Copts, Zoroastrians, Samaritans and others who suffered depredations from them before the Arabs ruled them and persecuted them to the point of extinction.

Suggested Reading

When did Islam emerge? – 1

As indicated in a number of sources, the Sarsān (or Sārsen / Sārken) is an expression or term employed in Byzantine and Persian correspondence, and in manuscripts of monks living in the monasteries of Iraq, Syria and Palestine in the seventh century AD during the period of the emergence of the ‘first Muḥammadans’ in these lands (and not in the Hijaz according to the fabricated Abbasid, Islamic account) when they describe the emergence of a heresy or belief in a group of ‘successors of Ishmael’ or Mhmtiyyīn / Muḥammadīn (followers of Prophet Mhmt / Muḥammad).

The term Saracens was originally used by the ancient Greeks for the Arabs and denoted some contempt (possibly because they were the sons of the Egyptian slave-girl Hagar) or carried a connotation of ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’. The Byzantines also gave the name ‘barbari’ to the primitive and barbaric tribes that attacked them from northern and eastern Europe, led by Attila who destroyed the Western Roman Empire. These were fighting against the Eastern Roman Empire, which eventually fell to the Ottoman (Turkish) tribes who came and attacked it from Central Asia. The Turk surpassed both the barbarians and the Saracens in their barbarism and savagery, except that they followed the belief and religion of the Saracens, while Attila and his barbarian followers became extinct since they did not have a religion or a spiritual belief that (the Prophet) Mhmt or Mḥammad and his Arab Saracen followers, and later his Ottoman Turk followers, had.

[1] The Ziqunin Yearbook was mistakenly attributed to Dionysus the Talmahri and was translated into Arabic with an inaccurate translation titled “The History of the Times.” Amīr Ḥarrāq, a professor of Semitic languages and Assyrian studies, believes it is likely that the Syriac monk Joshua the Stylite, a monk of the Ziqunin Monastery, wrote this work using older Syriac sources.

[2] Theophanes the Confessor (c.758/760-817/818) was a member of the Byzantine aristocracy who became a monk and chronicler.

[3] See article by Muḥammad Wahba: ملك العرب او النبي محمد التاريخي ماذا قالت المصادر السريانية والبيزنطية والأرمنية عن الرسول؟  (‘King of the Arabs or the historical Prophet Muḥammad, what did the Syriac, Byzantine and Armenian sources say about the Messenger?’).

[4] The Roman name for Jerusalem.

[5] Claudius Ptolemy’s Γεωγραφικὴ Ὑφήγησις, Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, (“Geographical Guidance”), also known by its Latin names Geographia and Cosmographia, is a gazetteer, atlas, and treatise on cartography, compiled at Alexandria c. 150 AD, and comprehending the geographical knowledge of the 2nd-century Roman Empire.

Main image: Kharab Shams ( خراب الشمس) an early Byzantine settlement in the territory of dead cities in northwestern Syria.

Read Part 1 of this essay here

The Makhthbhanutha dhe-Tesh’yatha dhe-Zabhne: Syriac annals of Joshua the Stylite known as The Chronicle of Zuqnīn

Download here Ḥusām ‘Aytānī’s book Al-Futūḥāt al-‘Arabiyya fī Riwāyat al-Maghlūbīn

Theophanes the Confessor (752-818): ‘Muḥammad inquired deeply into Jewish and Christian writings’

The Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy (c.100-c170 AD) describes the geographical location of the Saracens as the region to the north of the Sinai Peninsula