The conflict between the
Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and the Persian King Khasrau Parwiz (Chosroes II)
is referred to in Surah 30. (Al Rum). It will therefore be convenient now to
review very briefly the relations of those two great Empires and the way in
which they gradually decayed before the rising sun of Islam. The story has not
only a political significance, but a deep spiritual significance in world
If we take the Byzantine
Empire as a continuation of the Empire that grew out of the Roman Republic,
the first conflict took place in B.C. 53, when the Consul Crassus (famous for
his riches) was defeated in his fight with the Parthians. If we go back
further, to the time of the Greek City-States, we can refer back to the
invasion of Greece by Xerxes in B.C. 480-479 and the effective repulse of
that invasion by sea and land by the united cooperation of the Greek States.
The Persian Empire in those days extended to the western (Mediterranean) coast of
Asia Minor. But as it included the Greek cities of Asia Minor, there was
constant intercourse in war and peace between Persia and Hellenic (Greek)
world. The cities in Greece proper had their own rivalries and jealousies, and
Greek cities or parties often invoked the aid of the Great King (Shahinshah of
Persia) against their opponents. By the Peace of Antalcidas, B.C. 387, Persia
became practically the suzerain power of Greece. This was under the
Achaemenian Dynasty of Persia.
Then came the rise of
Macedonia and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire (B.C. 330). This
spread the Hellenic influence as far east as Central Asia, and as far south as
Syria (including Palestine), Egypt, and and Northern Africa generally. Rome in
its expansion westwards reached the Atlantic, and in its expansion eastwards
absorbed the territories of Alexander’s successors, and became the mistress of
all countries with a Mediterranean seacoast. The nations of the Roman Empire
“insensibly melted away into the Roman name and people ”(Gibbon, chap ii).
Meanwhile there were native
forces in Persia
which asserted themselves and established (A.C. 10) the Dynasty of the
Arsacids (Ashkanian). This was mainly the outcome of a revolt against
Hellenism, and its spear point was in Parthia. The Arsacids won back Persia
proper, and established the western boundary of Persia in a line drawn roughly
from the eastern end of the Black Sea southwards to the Euphrates at point
northeast of Palmyra. This would include the region of the Caucasus (excluding
the Black Sea coast) and Armenia and Lower Mesopotamia, in the Persian Empire.
This was the normal boundary between Persia and the Roman Empire until the
Islamic Empire wiped out the old Monarchy of Persia and a great part of the
Byzantine Empire, and annexed Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and gradually Asia
Minor, finally extinguishing the whole of the Byzantine Empire.
Another stage in Persian
history was reached when the Arsacids were overthrown and the Sasanians came
into power under Ardshir 1, A.C. 225. the Sasanian Empire was, in a sense, a
continuation of the Achaemenian Empire, and was reaction against the
corruptions of the Zoroastrian religion which had crept in under the Parthian
Dynasty of the Arsacids. But the religious reforms were only partial. There
were some interaction between Christianity and the Zoroastrian religion. For
example, the great mystic Mani, who was painter as well as religious leader,
founded the sect of Manichaeism. He flourished in the reign of Shapur 1 (A.C.
241-272) and seems to have preached a form of Gnostic faith, in which
Alexandrian philosophy was mixed with Christian doctrine and the old Persian
belief in the dual principle of Good and Evil. The Sasanians failed to purify
religion and only adhered to fire-worship in arrogance, luxury, sensuality,
and monopoly of power and privilege, which is the office of Religion to
denounce and root out. That office was performed by Islam.
When the seat of the Roman
Empire was transferred to Constantinople (Byzantium) in the time of
Constantine (A.C. 350), the conflict between Rome
and Persia became more and more frequent. The true Peninsula of Arabia was
never conquered either by Rome or by Persia, although its outlying parts were
absorbed in either the one or the other at various times. It is interesting to
notice that the Roman Emperor Philip (A.C. 244-249) was a born Arab and that
the architecture of the Nabataeans in the city of Petra and in Hijr shows a
mixture of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and indigenous Arab cultures.
Arabia received the
cultural influences of Persia and the Byzantine Empire, but was a silent
spectator of their conflicts until Islam was brought into the main currents of
The Yemen coast of Arabia,
which was easily accessible by sea to Persia,
was the battle-ground between the Persian Empire and the Abyssinian Empire just across the Red Sea. Abyssinia and
Arabia had had cultural and political relations for many centuries. Amharic,
the ruling language of Abyssinia, is closely allied with Arabic, and the
Amharic people went as colonists and conquerors from Arabia through Yemen.
Shortly before the birth of the Holy Prophet, Abyssinia had been in occupation
of Yemen for some time, having displaced a Jewish dynasty. The Abyssinians
professed the Christian religion, and although their Church was doctrinally
separate from the Byzantine Church, there was a great deal of sympathy between
the Byzantines and the Abyssinians on account of their common Christian
One of the Abyssinian viceroys in
Yemen was Abrahah, who conceived
the design of destroying the Temple at Makkah. He led an expedition, in which
elephants formed a conspicuous feature, to invade Makkah and destroy the
Ka'bah. He met a disastrous repulse, which is referred to in the Quran (Surah
105). This event was in the year of the Prophet’s birth, and marks the
beginning of the great conflict which enabled Arabia eventually to obtain a
leading place among the nations of the world.
The year usually given for the
Prophet’s birth is 570 A.C., though the date must be taken as only
approximate, being the middle figure between 569 and 571. the extreme possible
The Abyssinians having been overthrown, the Persians were established
in Yemen, and their power lasted there until about the 7th year of
the Hijrah (approximately 628 |A.C..), when Yemen accepted Islam.
The outstanding event in
Byzantine history in the 6th century was the reign of Justinian
(527-565) and in Persian history the reign of Anawshirwan (531-579).
Justinian is well-known for his great victories in Africa and for the great
Digest he made of Roman Law and Jurisprudence. In spite of the scandalous life
of his queen Theodora, he occupies an honourable place in the history of the
Anawshirwan is known in Persian history as the “Just King”. They
were contemporary rulers for a period of 34 years. In their time the Roman and
Persian Empires were in close contact during peace and war. Anawshirwan just
missed being adopted by the Roman Empire. If the adoption had come off, he
would have become one of the claimants to the Byzantine throne. He invaded
Syria and destroyed the important Christian city of Antioch in 540-541. it was
only the able defence of Belisarius, the Roman general, which saved the Roman
Empire from further disasters in the east.
On the other hand the Turanian
Avars, driven in front of the Turks, had begun the invasion of Constantinople
from the western side. Justinian made an alliance with the Abyssinians as a
Christian nation, and the Abyssinians and the Persians came to conflict in
Yemen. Thus world conditions were hemming in Arabia on all sides. It was Islam
that not only saved Arabia but enabled it to expand and to play a
prominent part in world history after the annihilation of the Persian Empire and the
partial destruction of the Byzantine Empire.
The sixth century of the
Christian era and the first half of the seventh century were indeed a
marvelous period in the world's history. Great events and transformations were
taking place throughout the then known world. We have referred in the Roman
Empire and the Persian Empire which dominated the civilized portions of
Europe, Africa and Western Asia.
The only two other countries of note in
history in those days were India and China.
In India there was the glorious
period of Harsha Vardhana (606-647 A.C.), in which art, science, and
literature flourished, political power was on a healthy basis, and religious
enquiry was bringing India and China into closer relationship. The famous
Chinese Buddhist traveler Yuang-Chwang (or Yuang Tsang or Hsuan-Tsang)
performed his pious pilgrimage to India in 629-45.
In China, the glorious The’ang Dynasty was established in 618. the Chinese art of that Dynasty led
the world. In political power, China extended from the Pacific in the east to
Persian Gulf on the west. There was unity and peace, and China-hitherto more
or less isolated-received ambassadors from Persia, Constantinople, Magadha, and
Nepal, in 643. but all this pomp and glitter had in it the seeds of decay.
Persia and Byzantine collapsed in the next generation. India was in chaos
after Harsha’s death. The Chinese Empire could not long remain free from the
“Barbarians”: the Great Wall, begun in the third century B.C., was soon to be
out of date. By about 683 the Khitans from the northwest and the Tibetans from
the south were molesting China.
The Germans, the Goths and the Vandals were
pressing further and further into Roman Empire. From Asia, the Avars and the
Turks were pressing both on the Romans and the Persians, and sometimes playing
off the one against the other. The simpler and less sophisticated nations,
with their ruder but more genuine virtues, were gaining ground. Into all that
welter came the Message of Islam, to show up, as by galvanic action, the false
from the truth, the empty from the eternal, the decrepit and corrupt from the
vigorous and pure. The ground of History was being prepared for the New Birth
Anawshirwan was succeeded
on the Persian throne by an unworthy son Hurmuz (579-590). Had it not been for
the talents of his able General Bahram, his Empire would have been ruined by
the invasions of the Turks on one side and the Romans on the other. Eventually
Bahram rebelled, and Hurmuz was deposed and killed. His son Khusraw Parwiz (Chosroes
II) took refuge with the Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who practically adopted
him as a son and restored him to the Persian throne with Roman arms.
reigned over Persia from 590 to 628. it was to him that the Holy Prophet
addressed one of his letters, inviting him to Islam towards the end of his
life. It is not certain whether the letter was actually delivered to him or to
his successor, as it is nor easy to calculate precisely synchronous dates of
the Christian era with those of the earliest years of the Hijrah era.
In Arabic and Persian
records the term Kisra refers usually to Khusraw Parwiz (Chosroes II) and
sometimes to Khusraw Anawshirwan (Chosroes I), while the term Khusraw is
usually treated as generic - as the title of the Kings of Persia generally. But
this is by no means always the case.
“Kisra” is an Arabic form of “Khusraw”.
The name of Anawshirwan has been shortened from the time of Firdawsi onwards
to Nushirwan. The Pehlevi form is Anoshek-ruwan, “of immortal soul’.
The Roman Emperor Maurice
(582-602) had a mutiny in his army, and his capital revolted against him. The
army chose a simple centurion called Phocas as Emperor and executed Maurice
himself. The usurper Phocas ruled from 602 t0 610, but his tyranny soon
disgusted the Empire, Heraclius, the governor (exarch) of a distant province
in Africa, raised the standard of rebellion, and his young son, also called
Heraclius, was sent to Constantinople to depose Phocas and assume the reins of
power. It was the younger Heraclius, who ascended the throne of Constantinople in 610 and ruled till 642, who figures in Muslim
history as Hiraql.
Khusraw Parwiz called
himself the son of the Emperor Maurice. During his refuge at Constantinople he
had married a Byzantine wife. In Nizami’s Romance she is known as Maryam.
According to some historians she was a daughter of the Emperor Maurice, but
Gibbon throws doubts on that relationship.
In any case, he used the resources
of the Persian Empire to fight the usurper Phocas. He invaded the Byzantine
Empire in 603. the war between the Persians and the Romans became a national
war and continued after the fall of Phocas in 610. the Persians had sweeping
victories, and conquered Aleppo, Antioch, and the chief Syrian cities,
including Damascus in 611.
Jerusalem fell to their arms in 614-615, just 8 to
years before the sacred Hijrah. The city was burnt and pillaged, the
Christians were massacred, the churches were burnt, the burial place of Christ
was itself insulted, and many relics, including the “true Cross” on which the
Christians believed that Christ had been crucified, were carried away to
The priests of the Persian religion
celebrated an exultant triumph
over the priests of Christ. In this pillage and massacre the Persians were
assisted by crowds of Jews, who were discontented with the Christian
domination, and the Pagan Arabs to whom any opportunity of plunder and
destruction was in itself welcome.
It is probably this striking event-this
victory of the Persians over the Roman Empire-which is referred to in Surah 30
(Al Rum) of the Quran. The Pagan Arabs naturally sided with the Persians in
their destructive zeal, and thought that the destruction of the Christian
power of Rome would also mean a setback to the Message of the Prophet, the
true successor of Jesus. For our Holy Prophet had already begun his mission
and the promulgation of Allah's Revelation in A.C. 610. while the whole world
believed that the Roman Empire was being killed by Persia, it was revealed to
him that the Persian victory was short-lived and that within a period of a few
years the Romans would conquer again and deal deadly blow to the Persians. The
Pagan Arabs, who were then persecuting the Holy Prophet in Makkah, hoped that
their persecution would destroy the Holy Prophet’s new Revelation.
In fact both their
persecution and the deadly blows aimed by the Persians and the Romans at each
other were instruments in Allah's hands for producing those conditions which
made Islam thrive and increase until it became the predominant power in the
The Persian flood of
conquest did not stop with the conquest of Jerusalem. It went on to Egypt,
which was also conquered and annexed to the Persian Empire in 616. The Persian
occupation reached as far as Tripoli in North Africa. At the same time another
Persian Army ravaged Asia Minor and reached right up to the gates of
Constantinople. Not only the Jews and Pagan Arabs, but the various Christian
sects which had been persecuted as heretics by the Romans, joined in the fray
and helped the Persians. The condition of Heraclius became indeed pitiable.
With all these calamities, he had to deal with the Avars who were attacking
from the other side of Constantinople, which was practically in state of siege.
Famine and pestilence added to the horrors of the situation.
In these desperate
circumstances Heraclius conceived a brilliant plan. He knew that the Persians
were weak in sea power. He used his sea-power to attack them in the rear in
622 (the year of Hijrah). He transported his army by sea through the Aegean
Sea to the bay just south of the Taurus Mountains.
He fought a decisive battle
with the Persians at Issus, in the same plain in which Alexander the Great had
defeated the Persians of his day in his famous march to Syria and Egypt. The
Persians were taken by surprise and routed. But they had still a large forces
in Asia Minor, which they could have brought into play against the Romans if
Heraclius had not made another and equally unexpected dash by sea from the
He returned to
Constantinople by sea, made a treaty with the Avars, and
with their help kept the Persians at bay around the capital. Then he led three
campaigns, in 623, 624, and 625, along the southern shore of the Black Sea and
took the Persians again in the rear in the region round Trebizond and Kars.
Through Armenia, he penetrated into Persia and got into Mesopotamia. He was
now in a position to strike at the very heart of the Persian Empire. A
decisive battle was fought on the Tigris near the city of Mosul in December
627. before this battle, however, he had taken care to get the alliance of the
Turks and with their help to relieve Constantinople in 626 against the
Persians and the treacherous Avars who had then joined the Persians.
Heraclius celebrated the
triumph in Constantinople in March 628. peace was then made between the two
on the basis of the status quo ante. Heraclius, in pursuance of a vow he had
made, went south in the autumn to Emessa (Himis) and from there marched on
foot to Jerusalem to celebrate his victories, and to restore to its place the
Holy Cross which had been carried away by the Persians and was returned to
the Emperor as a condition of peace.
Heraclius’s route was strewn with costly
carpets, and he thought that the final deliverance had come for his people and
Either on the way, or in Jerusalem, he met a messenger from the
Holy Prophet carrying a letter inviting him to the True Faith as renewed in
the living Messenger of the age. He apparently received the message with
courtesy. But he did not realize the full import of the new World which was
being shaped according to Allah's plans, and the future that was opening
through the new Revelation. Perhaps in his heart he felt impressed by the
story which he had heard from the Arabs about the Holy Prophet, but the
apparent grandeur of his empire and the pride of his people prevented him from
openly accepting the renewed Message of Allah. He caused a search to be made
for any Arab who was sufficiently acquainted with the Prophet to tell him
something about him. Abu Sufyan was then trading in a caravan in Syria. He was
a cousin of the Prophet, and belonged to the Umayyah branch of the family. He
was sent for to Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina).
When Abu Sufyan was called
to presence of Heraclius, the Emperor questioned him closely about this new
Prophet. Abu Sufyan himself was at that time outside Islam and really an enemy
of the Prophet and his Message. Yet the story he told - of the truth and
sincerity of the Holy Prophet, of the way in which the poor and lowly flocked
to him, of the wonderful increase of his power and spiritual influence, and
the way in which people who had once received the Light never got disillusioned or
went back to their life of ignorance, and above all the integrity with which
he kept all his covenants - made a favourable impression on the mind of
Heraclius. That story is told in dramatic detail by Bukhari and other Arabian
The relations of the
Persians Monarch with Islam were different. He -either Khusraw Parwiz or his
successor- received the Holy Prophet’s messenger with contumely and tore up
“So will his kingdom be torn up.”
Said the Holy Prophet when the
news reached him.
The Persian Monarch ordered the Governor in
Yemen to go and
arrest the man who had so far forgotten himself as to address the grandson of
Anawshirwan on equal terms.
When the Persian Governor tried to carry out his
Monarch’s command, the result was quite different from what the great Persian
King of Kings had expected. His agent accepted the truth of Islam, and Yemen
was lost as a province to the Persian Empire and became a portion of the new
Khusraw Parwiz died in February 628. he had been deposed and
imprisoned by his own cruel and undutiful son, who reigned only for a year and
a half. There were nine candidates for the Persian throne in the remaining
four years. Anarchy reigned supreme in the Sasanian Empire, until the dynasty
was extinguished by the Muslim victory at the battle of Mada’in in 637. the
great and glorious Persian monarchy, full of pride and ambition, came to an
ignominious end, and a new chapter opened for Persia under the banner of
The Roman Empire itself
began to shrink gradually, losing its territory, not to Persia, but to the new
Muslim Power which absorbed both the ancient Empires. This Power arose in its
vigour to proclaim a new and purified creed to the whole world. Already in the
last seven years of Heraclius’s reign (635-642) several of the provinces
nearest to Arabia had been annexed to the Muslim Empire. The Muslim Empire
continued to spread on, in Asia Minor to the north and Egypt to the south.
The Eastern Roman Empire became a mere shadow with a small bit of territory
round its capital. Constantinople
eventually surrendered to Muslims in 1453.
That was the real end of
the Roman Empire. But in the wonderful century in which the Prophet lived,
another momentous Revolution was taking place. The Roman Pontificate of
Gregory the Great (590-604) was creating a new Christianity as the old
Christianity of the East was slowly dying out. The Patriarch of Constantinople
had claimed to be the Universal Bishop, with jurisdiction over all the other
bishops of Christendom. This had been silently but gradually questioned by the
Popes of Rome. They had been building up a liturgy, a church organization and
a body of discipline for the clergy, different from those of the Holy Orthodox
Church. They had been extending their spiritual authority in the Barbarian
provinces of Gaul and Spain. They had been amassing estates and endowments.
They had been accumulating secular authority in their own hands.
the Great converted the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Great Britain to his form of
Christianity. He protected Italy from the ravages of the Franks and Lombards
and raised the See of Rome to the position of a Power which exercised ample
jurisdiction over the Western world. He was preparing the way for the time
when one of his successors would crown under his authority the Frankish
Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome and of the West (A.C. 800), and another of his
successors would finally break away from the Orthodox Church of Constantinople
in 1054 by the Pope’s excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople and
the Greeks. (See the last paragraph in Appendix V.)
Among Western writers, the chief authority is Gibbon’s
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: mainly chapters 40-42, and 45-46; I have
given references to other chapters in the body of this Appendix: his delineation
of the characters of Heraclius and Chosroes II is brief but masterly.
Drapeyron’s French monograph, L’Empereur Heraclius (Paris, 1869) throws further
light on an interesting personality.
A.J. Butler’s Arab Conquest of Egypt
(Oxford, 1902) gives a good account of Heraclius.
The famous French dramatist Corneille has left a play of Heraclius, but it turns more on an intricate and
imaginary plot in the early life of Heraclius than on the character of Heraclius
Nizami, in his Khusraw-o-Shirin (571 H, 1175-66
A.D.) makes reference at the end of his Romance to the Holy Prophet’s letter to
the Persian King, and does attempt in the course of the Romance a picture of the
King’s character. He is a sort of wild Prince Hal before he comes to the throne.
Shirin is an Armenian princess in love with Khusraw; she marries Khusraw after
the death of his first wife Maryam, daughter of the Roman Emperor, and mother
oft undutiful son who killed Khusraw and seized his throne.
Among the other
Eastern writers, we find a detailed description of the interview of Abu Sufyan
in Bukhari’s Sahih (book on the beginning of Inspiration): the notes in the
excellent English translation of Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) are helpful.
Tabari’s History is as usual valuable.
Mirkhond’s (Khawind-Shah) Rawdah al Safa
(translated by Rehatsek) will give English readers a summary (at second hand) of
the various Arabic authorities.
Mawlana Shibli’s otherwise excellent Sirah al
Nabi is in this respect disappointing.
Mawlana Zafar Ali’s Ghalaba-i-Rum (Urdu,
Lahore, 1926) is interesting for its comments.
A note on the Persian capitals may be interesting. So long
as Persia was under the influence of the Semitic Elamites, the chief residence
of the rulers was at Susa, near the modern Dizful, about 50 miles northeast of Shustar. In the Medic or Median period (say B.C. 700 t0
550) the capital was, as we should expect, in the highlands of Media., in
Ecbatana, the site of the modern city of Hamadan, 180 miles west of modern Tihran. Ecbatana remained even in Sasanian times the
summer capital of Persia. With the Achae menians (B.C. 550-330) we come to a
period of full national and imperial life. Susa was the chief Achaemenian
capital from the time of darius I onwards, through Persepolis (Istakhr) in the
mountain region near modern Shiraz, and about 40 miles northeast of Shiraz, was used as the city of royal burial. Alexander
himself, as ruler in Persia, died in Babylon, later when the centre of gravity
moved north and northeast, other sites were selected.
The Arsacids (Ashkanian) or Parthians were a tribal power, fitly
called in Arabic the muluk al Tawaif, and had probably no fixed or centralized
capital. The Saqsanian took over a site where there were a number of cities,
among which were Ctesiphon and Seleucia on opposite banks of the river Tigris.
This site is about 45
miles north of the old site of Babylon and 25 miles below the later city of Baghdad. Ctesiphon and Seleucia were Greek
cities founded by one of Alexander’s successors, Seleucia being named after
This complex of seven cities was afterwards called by the
Arabic name of Madain (the Cities). The Takht-i-Kisra (or Arch of Ctesiphon)
still stands in a ruinous condition on this site. This seems to have been the
chief capital of the Sasanians at the Arab conquest, which may be dated either
from the battle of Qadisiyah or tha of Mada’in (Both fought in 637 A.D.), after which Persia
which then included ‘Iraq came into Muslim Empire. The Abbasi Empire built
Baghdad for its capital under Mansur in 762 A.D. when that Empire was broken up
in 1258 A.D.,
there was some confusion for two centuries. Then a national Persian Empire,
the Safawi (1499-1736) arose, and Shah Salim established his capital in the
northwest corner in Tabriz. Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1628) had his capital at
the more central city of Ispahan (or Isfahan). After the Safawi dynasty
confusion reigned again for about four decades, when the Afghans were in the
ascendant. When the Qachar (or Qajar) dynasty (1795-1925) was firmlty
established under Agha Muhammad Khan. Tihran (Tehran) near the Caspian, where
his family originated, became the capital, and it still remains the capital
under the modern Pehlvi Dynasty.