THE SPREAD OF ISLAM
Swift and resistless through the land he passed,
Like that bold Greek who did the East subdue,
And made to battles such heroic haste
As if on wings of victory he flew.
DRYDEN: On Cromwell.
F those sovereigns visited by the envoys of
Mohammed and bidden to give their allegiance
to the Prophet, was Khosru, King of Persia,
who, in utter disdain of such a demand, tore the letter
"Beware, O king," said the messenger as he
departed," for in the days to come your kingdom shall be
treated as you have treated the written words of the
The idea of an unknown sect from an Arabian desert
attacking the power of the "Great King" seemed
preposterous to those who heard, for Persia was then at
the height of one of her spasmodic periods of success.
Some eighteen years before the envoy of Islam appeared
at his court the king had covered his empire with glory
by the capture of Jerusalem (611 A.D.), then in the hands
of Rome, and inhabited chiefly by Christians. On this
occasion the Jews throughout Palestine rose on his behalf
with the object of exterminating the Christians, ninety
 thousand of whom are said to have perished. "Every
Christian church was demolished, that of the Holy
Sepulchre was the object of furious hatred; the stately
building of Helena and Constantine was abandoned to
the flames; the devout offerings of three hundred years
were rifled in one sacrilegious day."
Fortunately for future ages, the great church, built by the pious Helena
over the place where the body of Christ had lain, was not
entirely destroyed; but—a worse blow still to the
Christian inhabitants—the True Cross was taken from
its sacred hiding place and carried into Persia.
Egypt had also fallen into the hands of the conquering
Khosru, when at length Heraclius, the Emperor of the
East, "slumbering on the throne of Constantinople,"
awoke, drove the Persian from Syria and Egypt,
restored the ruined churches of Jerusalem, and brought
back in triumph the Cross to the Holy City.
The preceding year had seen the fall of Khosru, and
peace concluded between the Empires of Rome and
Persia; eight years later Jerusalem was in the hands
of the Saracens (637 A.D.).
The years intervening between this event and the
death of Mohammed had been utilised by the sons of
Islam in making a series of conquests, which seem
well-nigh miraculous. We can indeed only account for them
by the fact that the contest was between a race of
fighters, stirred by their new faith to a perfect frenzy
of enthusiasm, and the remnants of Empires far gone
Yet, even so, there was no light task. Chaldaea and
Babylonia, perhaps the most ancient empires in the
world, fell before the sword of Islam only after a long
 and terrible struggle. The bloodshed on both sides was
appalling, but the ever-increasing numbers of Moslems
were always providing fresh recruits, eager to win
victory or Paradise. Even when they were less
numerous than their enemies, they more than made
up for it by the determination and obstinacy of their
Emboldened by this success, the Saracens flung
themselves upon the Empire of Persia. Three months after
the great battle of Cadesia, the "white palace" of
Khosru was in their hands, and the remnants of the
Persian hosts had fled before them.
The story of Harmozan, the Prince of Susa, Persia's
most important city, shows the craft of the native Persian,
and the binding nature of the Islamite promise. Brought
before Omar the Caliph of Islam, stripped of his gorgeous
robes, bullied and insulted, Harmozan complained of
intolerable thirst. They brought him a cup of water,
which he eyed askance.
"What ails the man?" cried Omar. "I fear, my lord,
lest I be killed even as I drink," confessed Harmozan.
"Be of good courage," replied the Caliph, "your life
is safe till you have drunk the water." Instantly the
crafty ruler dashed the cup to the ground, and when
Omar would have avenged his deceit, the bystanders
promptly reminded him that the word of a Moslem is as
sacred as an oath. Harmozan was liberated, and became
speedily a convert to a religion which taught so well how
to "keep faith."
While these conquests were being made in the East,
the forces of Omar had been making equal progress in the
Palestine was their destination, and Damascus, that
 famous city, the centre of immense trade, their first
From thence they advanced upon Jerusalem, taking
town after town on the way. A siege of four months
convinced the Christian Patriarch that it was hopeless to
hold out longer. All he now demanded was that Omar
himself should come to take possession, on the ground
that it was written in the sacred book of the Jews that
the city should one day fall into the hands of a king
having but four letters in his name.
In Arabia the word "Omar" fulfilled this condition,
and forthwith the Caliph arrived, in the plainest garb,
riding upon a camel, and bearing with him his pouch of
grain and dates and his skin of water.
To meet him came the chieftains he had sent out two
years before, clad in the rich cloths of Damascus.
"Is it thus ye come before me?" cried Omar in
disgust, throwing a handful of sand in their faces.
Dismayed for a moment, they recollected themselves, and,
opening their gorgeous robes, revealed the armour
"Enough!" cried the Caliph. "Go forward!"
The terms arranged were by no means harsh, though
clearly marking the inferior position of the conquered
Christians. No crosses were to be shown, nor church
bells rung in the street. A Christian must rise and stand
in the presence of a Moslem. The latter might practise
his religion and use his church undisturbed; but the
great mosque of Omar was to rise over the ruined altar
of the temple and over the sacred stone upon which the
patriarch Jacob had once rested his head.
Strange as it may seem, the two races settled down
side by side in peace and friendship. Both acknowledged
 the holiness of the Israelites of old, whose bones lay
buried in the neighbourhood of the Holy City. Within
its walls the Mohammedans treated with respect, if not
with reverence, the worship of Him whom they regarded
as a prophet not far inferior to their own. Thus four
centuries rolled quietly away, until the old distinction
between conquerors and conquered had almost ceased
to exist, and pilgrims from all parts of Christendom were
welcomed by Christian and Moslem alike.
Meantime the forces of Islam threatened to overrun
the greater part of the known world. The Saracens
"rode masters of the sea," throughout the Greek
archipelago; their sway was recognised towards the East
up to the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris, to the
North they had spread over Asia Minor deep to the very
walls of Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Empire.
Egypt was conquered by Amrou, one of the most
famous generals of the Caliph Omar. With Egypt fell
Alexandria, a city renowned for its learning, and
especially for its magnificent library, through the civilised world.
"I have taken," Amrou told the Caliph," the great city
of the West. It contains four thousand palaces, four
thousand baths, four hundred theatres or places of
amusement, twelve thousand shops for the sale of vegetable
food, and forty thousand tributary Jews. The town
has been subdued by force of arms, without treaty or
capitulation, and the Moslems are impatient to seize the
fruits of their victory."
Fortunately for the inhabitants, who were the last to
be referred to, Omar would not allow slaughter or
pillage. But if the tale be true, the fate of the famous
library of Alexandria shows very clearly the narrow
limits of Saracen culture in those days.
 A learned scholar of the city, who had won the liking
and respect of Amrou, entreated that the library might
be given over to him, as the Moslems would have no use
for it. The question was referred to Omar, who replied,
"If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of
God, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they
disagree, they are harmful, and should be destroyed."
And forthwith the priceless volumes were committed
to the flames.
Six years later (647 A.D.) the warrior Othman
accomplished the conquest of Northern Africa; and a little
more than sixty years later, a small expedition of
Saracens crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and set foot
in Spain. Their leader, Tarif, gave his name to the
place (Tarifa) where he landed, and likewise to the
"tariff" or "duty" levied upon the vessels which
passed through the straits.
At Xeres they were met by Roderick, the "last of the
Goths," who was killed, and whose army was put to flight
by the forces of the Saracens, or Moors as they were
called after their settlement in Mauretania or Morocco,
just across the straits. But the conquest of Spain by the
Moors, teeming as it is with romantic interest, is too
long to be related here, and we must retrace our steps to
By the end of the first half of the eighth century, and
only a little over a hundred years after Mohammed's
death, the Saracens had brought their career of conquest
almost to an end, and were firmly established as "the
most potent and absolute monarchs of the globe." One
determined attempt, indeed, was made during the latter
half of the century to take Constantinople, the capital
of the Eastern Empire. A battle was fought beneath the
 walls of the city, and the Saracens were victorious; but
they were prevailed upon to retire on the promise of an
immense yearly tribute.
The beginning of the ninth century saw the Eastern
and Western worlds ruled respectively by those two
famous monarchs of history and romance,
Haroun-Al-Raschid and Charlemagne. The first is familiar to
most of us through the enchanting pages of the
Arabian Nights, but history unfortunately gives us a
darker portrait of the renowned Caliph, painting him
as a jealous and selfish tyrant. He was, however, a
patron of literature and of art, which distinguishes him
from his predecessors, who were merely warriors. He
could fight, too, on occasion, both with tongue and
sword. A new Emperor of Constantinople chose to
refuse the tribute promised by the late Empress in these
"Nicephorus, King of the Greeks, to Haroun, King of
"The late Queen was too humble; she submitted to
pay tribute to you, though she should have exacted
twice as much from you. A man speaks to you now;
therefore send back the tribute you have received,
otherwise the sword shall be umpire between me and
The Caliph replied in unmistakable terms—
"In the name of Allah, most merciful!"
"Haroun-al-Raschid, Commander of the Faithful, to
Nicephorus, the Roman dog.
"I have read thy letter, O thou son of an unbelieving
mother! Thou shalt not hear, but thou shalt see my
Forthwith a huge force crossed over into the domains
 of Nicephorus, and only the promise to pay the tribute
twice, instead of once a year, induced the Caliph to
withdraw his forces.
To us, however, the most interesting incident of his
reign is the link that was forged between East and
West when the great Haroun courteously received the
ambassadors of Charlemagne at his court in Bagdad.
He may have been prompted only by a desire to obtain
the Great Emperor of the West as his ally against the
Emperor of the Eastern Empire, but there seems little
doubt that Haroun actually sent to Charlemagne the
keys of the Holy Places at Jerusalem, declaring that the
city belonged first and foremost to the Champion of
Charlemagne did not hesitate to avail himself of this
generosity. Fifty years later, a monk of Brittany, named
Bernard the Wise, described how he was lodged at the
hospital of the most glorious Emperor Charles, wherein
are received all pilgrims who speak Latin, and who come
for a religious reason. There, too, he discovered the
fine library founded by Charlemagne close by, in the
Church of the Blessed Virgin. He speaks in high terms
of the relations existing between Christians and Moslems,
both at Jerusalem and in Egypt.
"The Christians and Pagans," he says,—have there
such peace between them that, if I should go a journey,
and in this journey my camel or ass which carried my
burdens should die, and I should leave everything there
without a guard, and go to the next town to get another,
on my return I should find all my property untouched."
Thus, in peace and security, the long stream of
pilgrims from the West flowed towards the Holy City until
the beginning of the eleventh century. Then came,
 quite suddenly, a terrible interval of persecution. The
reigning Caliph, El Hakim, became, as he grew up, a
fierce and fanatical madman. Inflamed, it is said, by
the report of the Jews, who warned him that unless he
put a stop to the crowds of pilgrims he would soon find
himself without a kingdom, he instituted a fierce
persecution of the Christians, and commanded that the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be destroyed.
Another furious outburst was directed against the Jews
themselves, as well as the Christians. Many were killed,
and many of their churches laid low.
Just before his end a fit of remorse seized El Hakim,
and he commanded that the churches of the Christians
should be restored. Before he could again change his
mind, he was assassinated by command of his own sister,
as being a dangerous madman.
A brief interval of toleration followed, which was but
the lull before the storm; for an outbreak of terrible
persecution was to come, an outbreak which was the
immediate cause of the First Crusade.
PILGRIM'S OF THE XITH CENTURY JOURNEYING TO THE HOLY CITY
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