Recently in history, on August 20, 636, the single most consequential battle between Islam and the West took place — that of Yarmuk. Occurring just four years after Muslim prophet Muhammad had died, not only did the military engagement decide whether the Arabian creed thrives or dies; it became a chief source of inspiration and instruction for jihadis throughout the centuries, right down to the Islamic State. And yet, very few in the West are even aware of the Battle of Yarmuk’s existence — much less how it motivates contemporary Islamic terrorists.
The contestants were the Eastern Roman Empire, under Emperor Heraclius, and the newly born Arabian caliphate, under the second caliph, Omar. After a couple of years of Muslim depredations in then Christian/Roman Syria, the two forces met along the Yarmuk River [near the Golan Heights, in what is today southern Syria near the border with Israel and Jordan].
The pre-battle exchange between the two generals, the Roman-Armenian Vahan and Khalid bin al-Walid — Islam’s much revered (and near cannibalistic) “Sword of Allah” — is instructive:
The Christian commander began by diplomatically blaming Arabia’s harsh conditions and impoverished economy for giving the Arabs no choice but to raid Roman lands. Accordingly, the empire was pleased to provide them with food and coin on the condition that they return home. “It was not hunger that brought us here,” Khalid responded coolly, “but we Arabs are in the habit of drinking blood, and we are told the blood of the Romans is the sweetest of its kind, so we came to shed your blood and drink it.
Vahan’s diplomatic mask instantly dropped and he launched into a tirade against the insolent Arab … “What havoc you have created! You ride horses not your own and wear clothes not your own. You pleasure yourselves with the young white girls of Rome and enslave them. You eat food not your own, and fill your hands with gold, silver, and valuable goods [not your own]. Now we find you with all our possessions and the plunder you took from our coreligionists — and we leave it all to you, neither asking for its return nor rebuking you. All we ask is that you leave our lands.”
The Sword of Allah was not impressed. He began reciting the Koran and talking about one Muhammad. Vahan listened in quiet exasperation. Khalid proceeded to call on the Christian general to proclaim the shahada — that “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger” — and thereby embrace Islam, in exchange for peace, adding, “You must also pray, pay zakat, perform hajj at the sacred house [in Mecca], wage jihad against those who refuse Allah, … and befriend those who befriend Allah and oppose those who oppose Allah,” a reference to the divisive doctrine of al-wala’ wa al-bara’. “If you refuse, there can only be war between us. . . . And you will face men who love death as you love life.”
Things came to a head, quite literally, when 8,000 marching Muslims appeared before the Roman camp carrying the severed heads of 4,000 Christians atop their spears. These were the remains of 5,000 reinforcements who had come from Amman to join the Roman army at Yarmuk. The Muslims had ambushed and slaughtered them. Then, as resounding cries of “Allahu akbar” filled the Muslim camp, those Muslims standing behind the remaining 1,000 Christian captives knocked them over and proceeded to carve off their heads before the eyes of their co-religionists, whom Arabic sources describe as looking on in “utter bewilderment.”
So it would be war: 30,000 Christian Romans against 24,000 Muslim Arabs along the Yarmuk River in Syria. …
The battlefield today
The battle took place over the course of six days. On August 20, 636, the sixth and final day, a dust storm — something Arabs were accustomed to, their opponents less so — erupted and caused mass chaos, particularly for the Romans, whose large infantry numbers proved counterproductive. Night fell. …
Muslim cavalrymen continued pressing on the crowded and blinded Roman infantry, using the hooves and knees of their steeds to knock down the wearied fighters. Pushed finally to the edge of the ravine, rank after rank of the remaining forces of the imperial army fell down the steep precipices to their death. “The Byzantine army, which Heraclius had spent a year of immense exertion to collect, had entirely ceased to exist,” writes British lieutenant-general and historian John Bagot Glubb. “There was no withdrawal, no rearguard action, no nucleus of survivors. There was nothing left.”
Mere decades after Yarmuk, all ancient Christian lands between Syria to the east and Morocco to the west — nearly 4,000 miles — had been conquered by Islam. Put differently: Two-thirds of Christendom’s original, older, and wealthier territory was permanently swallowed up by the scimitar of jihad. …
Whereas the “Arabs” were once limited to the Arabian Peninsula, today the “Arab world” consists of some 22 nations across the Middle East and North Africa.
This would not be the case, and the world would have developed in a radically different way, had the Eastern Roman Empire defeated the invaders and sent them reeling back to Arabia. Little wonder that historians such as Francesco Gabrieli hold that “the battle of the Yarmuk had, without doubt, more important consequences than almost any other in all world history.”
Moreover and as the alert reader may have noticed, the continuity between the words and deeds of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and those of its predecessors from nearly 1,400 years ago are eerily similar. This of course is intentional. When ISIS proclaims that “American blood is best and we will taste it soon,” or “We love death as you love life,” or “We will break your crosses and enslave your women,” they are quoting in verbatim — and thereby placing themselves in the footsteps of — Khalid bin al-Walid and his companions, the original Islamic conquerors of Syria.
Which is why seventh century Arab culture rules a quarter of mankind today, and is inexorably increasing. Coming soon to your city.