via The Siege of Constantinople.
Today, August 15, marks the anniversary of Constantinople’s victory over Muslim invaders in what historians commonly call the “Second Siege of Byzantium,” 717–18. Prior to this massive onslaught, the Muslims had been hacking away at the domains of the Byzantine empire for nearly a century. The Muslims’ ultimate goal was the conquest of Constantinople — for both political and religious reasons.
Politically, Islam had no rival but the “hated Christians” of Byzantium, known by various appellations — including al-Rum (the Romans), al-Nassara (the Nazarenes), and, most notoriously, al-Kilab (the “dogs”). The eastern Sasanian Empire had already been vanquished, and Persia subsumed into the caliphate. Only the “worshippers of the cross” — as they were, and still are, disparagingly known — were left as contenders over the eastern Mediterranean basin.
More important, Constantinople — from a theological perspective — simply had to fall. From the start, Islam and jihad were inextricably linked. The jihad, or “holy war,” which took over Arabia and Persia, followed by Syria, Egypt, and all of North Africa — all formerly Byzantine territory — was considered a religious obligation, or, as later codified in sharia law, a fard kifaya: a communal obligation on the body of believers, to be adhered to and fulfilled no less than the Five Pillars of Islam. As the famous 14th-century Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun put it: “In the Muslim community, the jihad is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. . . . Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.”
This concept of jihad as institutionalized holy war was first articulated and codified into Islam’s worldview by “warrior-theologians” (mujahidin-fuqaha) living and fighting along the Byzantine-Arab frontier (such as the mujahid Abdallah bin Mubarak, author of the seminal work Kitab al-Jihad or “Book of Jihad”).
The prevalent view was that, so long as Constantinople stood, the Cross would defy the Crescent. This is a literal point: Symbols played a great role in these wars. Less than a century earlier, at the pivotal battle of Yarmuk (636), where the Muslims crushed the Byzantines, leading to the conquest of Syria, one Muslim complained to the caliph, saying, “The dog of the Romans [Emperor Heraclius] has greatly frustrated us with the ubiquitous presence of the cross!”
Indeed, one cannot overemphasize the religious nature of these wars — which, if still codified in Islam’s sharia, has become all but alien to a Western epistemology that tends to cynically dismiss the role of faith. That the primary way of identifying oneself in the old world was based on religious affiliation — not race, ethnicity, or nationality, all modern concepts — is indicative of the central role of faith. Even useful terms such as “Byzantines” are ultimately anachronistic; “Byzantines” identified themselves first and foremost as “Christians.”
For these reasons, the conquest of Constantinople would take on increasingly apocalyptic proportions in Islamic literature. Ever since the Muslim prophet Mohammed sent a message in 628 to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, summoning him to Islam, with the famous assertion, aslam taslam — that is, “submit [become Muslim], and you will have peace” — and the summons was refused, Constantinople became Islam’s arch-enemy. Mohammed even prophesied that the Christian capital would — indeed, must — fall to Islam, with blessings and rewards to the Muslim(s) fulfilling this prophecy. Fall the great city would — but not for some 800 years, in 1453, giving an inchoate Europe the needed time to mature, strengthen, and unify.
Beginning with Mohammed’s participation at the Battle of Tabuk (630), recorded in the Koran, Muslims had been harrying the Byzantines for decades, closing in on Constantinople. With the coming of the Umayyad dynasty (660) — which also saw the end of the first fitna (Muslim “civil war”), resulting in the Sunni-Shia split — Islam’s seat of power moved from Medina to recently conquered Damascus, mere miles from the prize of Constantinople.
By the early 700s, the Muslim conquests were slowing down. There were several “disaffected” parties in the Muslim camp — particularly the losers of the first fitna, the Kharijites and Shia, the former a particularly ruthless sect. To prevent another civil war from erupting, a major campaign against the common infidel enemy was in order.
All these factors — Umayyad consolidation of Muslim power in Damascus, a slowing down of the conquests in general, and the need to direct the bellicosity of the various idle or disgruntled warlike Muslim sects, not to mention an undying enmity for the obstinate infidels across the way — encouraged the caliphate to apply its full might against its arch-foe. Constantinople had been unsuccessfully besieged several times before, most notably during the First Siege, which lasted four years (674–78) and was ultimately turned back by the cyclopean walls of the city.
So it was that, upon his ascension to the caliphate in 715, the new supreme leader of the Islamic empire, Suleiman, decided that the time was ripe for a massive, all-out offensive against Constantinople. The Byzantines would go on to offer a hefty tribute, but nothing less than total capitulation to Islam would do. Mustering a mammoth army of some 200,000 fighters, with Suleiman’s own brother, Maslama, leading, the former commanded the latter: “Stay there [Constantinople] until you conquer it or I recall you.” (That a caliph sent his own brother is further indicative of the importance of this campaign.)
A single anecdote supports the chroniclers’ claims that a gargantuan army was being mustered. Two years prior to the siege, in 715, a report reached the Christians that the Muslims were felling countless trees in Lebanon, land of the cedar, in order to construct tens of thousands of warships for an “upcoming expedition.” This fact alone caused a mini-war to erupt on the island of Rhodes, where the Byzantines sent an army to intercept the Muslim expeditionary force. One Byzantine ambassador returning from Damascus reported that the “Saracens were preparing an armament by sea and land, such as would transcend the experience of the past, or the belief of the present.” In short, 120,000 infantry and cavalry, and a naval force composed of 80,000, were making their way to Constantinople.
Maslama, leading the land force through Anatolia, crushed and put to the sword all in his way. Women and children were enslaved; tens of thousands of men crucified. While making their way through that great desolate no-man’s land between the Byzantine and Umayyad empires, frequented by nomadic tribes, the Muslims attacked, slew, and burned all in their path.
According to renowned Muslim chronicler al-Tabari, “The [Christian] inhabitants of eastern Anatolia were filled with terror the likes of which they had never experienced before. All they saw were Muslims in their midst shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Allah planted terror in their hearts. . . . The men were crucified over the course of 24 km.” Al-Tabari later goes on to explain that the Muslim forces were successful owing to their adherence to Koranic verses such as 8:60: “Muster against them [infidels] all the men and cavalry at your command, that you may strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah, and your enemies.” (See also 3:151.) (Nearly a millennium and a half after the Koran’s compilation, modern-day mujahidin — “holy warriors” who are fond of exhorting their followers by referring to these otherwise arcane battles — continue relying on such verses and their exegeses to “terrorize” the “enemies of Allah.”)
To make matters worse, as Maslama was marching toward Constantinople, subjugating everything in his path, the Christian empire itself was internally divided — as evinced by the fact that, between 713 and 717, two emperors had come and gone.
Enter Leo III — also known as Leo the Isaurian, Leo the Arab, and, most notoriously, Leo the Heretic. There is little doubt that the Byzantine victory over the Muslims owes a great debt to Leo, who makes his appearance early in the pages of the chronicles as a general and strategist — living up to the Greek word for “general,” strategos.
Of the original 200,000 Muslims who set out to conquer the Christian capital and additional spring reinforcements, only some 30,000 ever made it back alive. By way of retribution and before dying, a bitter and vindictive Omar, failing to subdue the Christians across the way, was quick to project his wrath on those Christians, the dhimmis, living under Islamic authority: He forced many of them to convert to Islam, killing those who refused.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this battle. That Constantinople was able to repulse the caliphate’s hordes is one of Western history’s most decisive moments: Had it fallen, “Dark Age” Europe — chaotic and leaderless — would have been exposed to the Muslim invaders. And, if history is any indicator, the last time a large expanse of territory was left open before the sword of Islam, thousands of miles were conquered and consolidated in mere decades, resulting in what is known today as Dar al-Islam, or the “Islamic world.”
Indeed, this victory is far more significant than its more famous Western counterpart, the Frankish victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours, led by Charles Martel (the “Hammer”) in 732. Unlike the latter, which, from a Muslim point of view, was first and foremost a campaign dedicated to rapine and plunder, not conquest — evinced by the fact that, after the initial battle, the Muslims fled — the siege of Constantinople was devoted to a longtime goal, had the full backing of the caliphate, and consisted of far greater manpower. Had the Muslims won, and since Constantinople was the bulwark of Europe’s eastern flank, there would have been nothing to prevent them from turning the whole of Europe into the northwestern appendage of Dar al-Islam.
Nor should the architect of this great victory be forgotten. The Byzantine historian Vasiliev concludes that “by his successful resistance Leo saved not only the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Christian world, but also all of Western civilization.”
Read it all at raymondibrahim.com
Also read Today in History, Constantinople saves Western Civilization from Islam.
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