Amr Ibn al ‘As (Ibn al ‘Asi)

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

‘Amr ibn al ‘As,’ Butler says, ‘was somewhere about 45 years old at the time of the Muslim capture of Egypt. Short in stature, though strongly built, his athletic and hardy frame excelled in those feats of horsemanship and swordsmanship which Western chivalry has learned to link with the name of ‘Saracen.’ 1

The Prophet’s opinion of ‘Amr was a high one. He praised him as the best Muslim and the most trustworthy of men. He called ‘Amr one of the good men of Quraish and highly esteemed him ‘for his knowledge and valour. 2

Obviously the Prophet had by then forgiven ‘Amr for his early enmity to Islam. It ought to be remembered that it was ‘Amr ibn al-As who was sent to Abyssinia to ask for the return of the Muslim emigrants there, who had fled Quraysh. 3 The Quraysh told ‘Amr and his companion exactly what to do: They were to approach each of the generals separately, give him his present, and say: ‘Some foolish young men and women of our people have taken refuge in this kingdom. They have left their own religion, not for yours, but for one they have invented, one that is unknown to us and to yourselves. The nobles of their people have sent us to your king on their account, that he may send them home. So when we speak to him about them, counsel him to deliver them into our hands and have no words with them; for their people see best how it is with them.’ 4

The generals all agreed, and the two men of the Quraysh took their presents to the Negus, asking that the emigrants should be given into their hands and explaining the reason as they had done to the generals, and finally adding: ‘The nobles of their people, who are their fathers, their uncles and their kinsmen, beg thee to restore them unto them.’ 5

After the Negus refused to deliver the Emigres, and he and his companion had retired from the royal presence, ‘Amr said to his companion: ‘Tomorrow I will tell him a thing that shall tear up this green growing prosperity of theirs by the roots.’ So the next morning he went to the Negus and said: ‘O King, they tell an enormous lie about Jesus the son of Mary. Call on them to say what they say of him.’ 6

Again the Negus questioned the Muslims and obtained the following answer from Ja’far: ‘We say of him what our Prophet brought to us, that he is the slave of God and His Messenger and His Spirit and His Word which He cast unto Mary the blessed virgin.’ 7

The Negus took up a piece of wood and said: ‘Jesus the son of Mary exceeds not what you have said by the length of this stick.’

And when the generals round him snorted, he added: ‘For all your snorting.’

Then he turned to Ja’far and his companions and said: ‘Go your ways, for you are safe in my land. Not for mountains of gold would I harm a single man of you’; and, with a movement of his hand towards the envoys of Quraysh, he said to his attendant: ‘Return to these two men their gifts, for I have no use for them.’

So ‘Amr and the other man went back ignominiously to Makkah. 8

‘Amr joined the ranks of the Muslims and made his submission the same year and on the same day as Khalid Ibn al-Waleed. 9 This would prove a crucial point in Muslim history, and for the great benefit of Islam.

During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, at the time the Muslim campaigns in Syria were began, it is narrated that ‘Amr went to Omar in al-Khattab, and sought him to use his influence with the Caliph in order to give him role in the campaigns. For whatever reason, Omar refused to interfere at all in the matter. 10 And when ‘Amr persisted, and kept asking him, Omar bade him not seek the superiority and dominion of this world; telling him, that ‘if he was not a prince today, he would be one to-morrow;’ meaning thereby, in a future state. And when ‘Amr was out of all hopes of ever having a command, the caliph, of his own accord, unexpectedly made him general of this army, and bade him:
“To take care to live religiously, and to make the enjoyment of the presence of God and a future state the end and aim of all his undertakings; to look upon himself as a dying man, always to have regard to the end of things; remembering that we must in a short time all die, and rise again, and be called to an account. He was not to be inquisitive about men’s private concerns, but take care that his men were diligent in reading the Koran, and not suffer them to talk about those things, which were done in the time of Ignorance because that would be the occasion of dissension among them. Lastly, he ordered him not to go where the other Muslims had been before him; but to march into Palestine, where, however, he was to take care to inform himself of Abu ‘Ubaidah’s circumstances, and if necessary to assist him to the best of his power.” 11

And so, in the year 633, ‘Amr found himself commanding one of the three detachments of about 3000 men each, led respectively by himself, Yazeed ibn-abi-Sufyan and Shurahbeel ibn Hasanah. 12 Each of the three Muslim generals had a specific objective. 13 Abu Bakr is alleged to have instructed ‘Amr ibn al-’As to proceed through Aila (modern Aqaba) into southern Palestine, in the direction of Gaza. 14

The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in modern-day Cairo

The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in modern-day Cairo

Early in his campaign, ‘Amr ibn al-’As engaged and defeated a Byzantine force at Dathin on the track between Aila and Gaza (February 4, 634). 15

In July 634 the Muslim armies faced the might of the Byzantine Empire. In that month, ‘Amr was joined by the other Muslim army commanders, Khalid, Abu ‘Ubaidah, and Yazeed, at Ajnadayn. This location has been identified by modern historians as the ancient Yarmuth near Wadi al-Simt, twenty five kilometres south west of Jerusalem. 16 The Byzantines were commanded by Qubuqlar (cubicularius, Chamberlain). 17 The Battle of Ajnadayn was the first major one between the Muslims and the Byzantines and was bitterly fought. 18 The Muslim army, which numbered about 20,000, was led by ‘Amr, whereas the other generals were present as subordinates. 19 In the wake of the battle, the Byzantines were routed, and the cubicularius himself was killed. Muslim losses were also very high, and many prominent figures fell there. 20 The news of the victory reached Abu Bakr on his deathbed, on 13 August 634. 21

As the Muslims kept making progress in Syria, the Byzantine Emperor sent a huge army in order to destroy their separate armies. Aware that remaining in separate forms would make their annihilation easy by the Byzantines, the Muslims gathered at the site of al-Yarmuk. There soon, in August 636, was to take place one of the most decisive battles in world history: The battle of the Yarmuk. 22 The superb fighting and command qualities of the Muslim leadership, Khalid, and ‘Amr in particular, in the end won the day, and the Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat, which opened both Syria and Palestine to them. 23

Following the battle of al-Yarmuk, one of the Muslims’ objectives was Jerusalem, which was besieged in 637. ‘Amr Ibn al-As’ troops participated in the siege alongside those of other commanders. 24 Following this, ‘Amr led his army in campaigns in the area around Ramla and Gaza, defeating the Byzantine forces in these places. 25

Constantine, the Emperor Heraclius’s son, guarded that part of the country where ‘Amr operated, with a considerable army; and frequently sent spies (Christian Arabs) into his camp. 26 One of them went one time and sat down amongst some of the Arabs, and conversed with, them as long as suited his purpose, without being suspected. However, as he was rising to go away, he trod upon his vest and stumbled; upon which he swore, “by Christ,” unawares. The oath was no sooner out of his mouth, than they immediately knew him to be a Christian spy, and cut him to pieces in an instant. 27 ‘Amr was angry when he heard it, because he would have wished to examine him first. Besides, he told them, “that it often happened, that a spy, when put to it, came over to them, and embraced the Muslim religion.” He therefore issued a strict order throughout the camp, that if hereafter a stranger or spy should be seized, he should be forthwith conveyed to him. 28

In the year 638, it is narrated, ‘Amr had a conference with Constantine. This is the abridged story of the event.

‘When ‘Amr came into Constantine’s presence, he was offered a seat by the prince; but according to the practice of the Arabs, he refused to make use of it; choosing rather to sit cross-legged upon the ground, with his sword upon his thigh, and his lance laid across before him. Constantine told him that the Arabs and Greeks were near kindred, and that it was a pity they should make war one upon the other. ‘Amr answered, “That their religion was different; upon which score it was lawful for brothers to quarrel.”

Regarding the Byzantine presence in Syria, ‘Amr continued ‘That it would be no hard matter for them to continue in the possession of what they had; for it was only changing their religion, and the business was done.” But both that and payment of tribute being refused, ‘Amr told him, “That there was then nothing left but to determine it by the sword. God knows,” said he, “that I have told you the means by which you may save yourselves, but you are rebellious, just as your father Esauf was disobedient to his mother. You reckon your-selves akin to us; but we have no desire to acknowledge the affinity, so long as you continue infidels. Besides you are the offspring of Esau, we of Ishmael, and God chose our Prophet Mohammed from Adam, to the time that he came out of the loins of his father; and made him the best of the sons of Ishmael, and he made the tribe of Kenanah the best of the Arabs; and the family of Koreishites the best of Kenanah; and the offspring of Hashem, the best of the Koreishites; and the best of the sons of Hashem, Abd al Mutalib, the Prophet’s grandfather; and sent the angel Gabriel down to him [Mohammed] with inspiration.”

The conference ending without any hopes of accommodation, ‘Amr returned to his army, and both sides prepared for battle, awaiting only a favourable opportunity. 29

In that same year, 638, ‘Amr obtained the surrender of Caesarea. As he lay before Caesarea. In the morning, when the people came to inquire after Constantine, and could hear no tidings of him nor his family; they consulted together, and with one consent surrendered the city to ‘Amr, paying down for their security two thousand pieces of silver, and delivering into his hands all that Constantine had been obliged to leave behind him of his property. 30

In the autumn of 639, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, who had been at Caesarea, marched southwards down the coast of Palestine with only three thousand and six hundred men. 31

The first fortified place which the Muslims struck was al-Farama (Pelusium), the key to eastern Egypt, in the middle of January 640. 32 Then, avoiding a direct attack on Alexandria, ‘Amr pushed through Bilbeis, north east of modern Cairo, before reaching the strong castle of Babylon, at the southern tip of the Delta. 33 The Byzantine army was thus utterly routed, and its commander was obliged to take refuge behind the walls of the fortress of the fortress of Babylon. 34 The Muslims mounted a siege of the city. After a siege of six months, the city of Babylon was captured by the Muslims, on April 6, 641. 35

After reducing the eastern borders of the Delta, ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As found himself in front of the capital of Egypt, Alexandria. The city was guarded by seemingly impregnable walls and fortresses, a strong garrison of 50,000, and the Byzantine navy. 36 This is the narration of how the city fell:

‘Amrou (‘Amr) quickly laid siege to the city. However, the Byzantines made a stout resistance, and made frequent sallies, so that there was a great slaughter on both sides. The Saracens at last made a vigorous assault upon one of the towers, and succeeded in entering it, the Greeks all the while defending it with the utmost bravery. In the tower itself the fight was sustained so long and stoutly, that the Saracens were at last hard pressed, and forced to retire. In this attempt ‘Amr, the general, Muslemah Ebn Al Mochalled, and Werdan, Amr’s servant, were taken prisoners. Being brought before the governor, he asked them what they meant by running about the world in this manner, and disturbing their neighbours. ‘Amr answered according to the usual form, and told him that they designed to make them either Muslims or tributaries before they had done. But this bold answer had like to have cost him his life, for the governor taking notice of his behaviour, concluded that he was no ordinary person, and bade those that stood near to cut off his head. But Werdan, ‘Amr’s slave, who understood Greek, as soon as he heard what the governor said, took his master, ‘Amr, by the collar, and gave him a box on the ear, telling him “That he was always putting himself forward, and prating, when it would better become him to hold his tongue; that he was a mean contemptible fellow, and that he would advise him to learn manners, and let his betters speak before him.” By this time Muslemah Ebn Al Mochalled had bethought him-elf, and told the governor,” that their general had thoughts of raising the siege; that Omar, the caliph, had written to him regarding the matter, and designed to send an honourable embassy, consisting of several worthy persons and men of note, to treat with him about matters; and if he pleased to let them go, they would acquaint their general how courteously they had been used, and employ the utmost of their endeavours to promote an accommodation.” He added, “That he did not in the least question but when the caliph’s ambassadors had treated with him, things would be made very easy on both sides, and the siege speedily raised.”

The governor, observing how Werdan treated his master, concluded him to have been as mean as Werdan represented him, and believed the story that Muslemah had told him concerning Omar’s sending some of the chief Arabs to treat with him. Wherefore, thinking it would be of greater consequence to kill six or ten considerable men than three or four of the vulgar, he dismissed these in hopes of catching the others. They were no sooner out of danger than the whole army of the Saracens shouted as loud as they could, “Allah Acbar.” When the Greeks upon the walls heard those great tokens of joy, which were shown in the camp for the return of these men they were convinced that they were not such persons as the governor had taken them for, and repented too late of having let them go.

Presently after this the Saracens renewed their assault, and so straitened the Alexandrians, that they were not able to hold out any longer. At last the city was taken, and the Greeks who were in it dispersed, a considerable party of them going further up into the country, and the others putting off to sea. Its possession, however, was dearly purchased by the Saracens, by a siege of fourteen months, and a loss of twenty-three thousand men before it.

To secure his conquest, and to prevent any alarm or disturbance which might follow, ‘Amr thought it advisable to reduce those Greeks who had escaped from the siege of Alexandria, and gone further up into the country. For he reasonably concluded that so long as any considerable number of them should be in arms, the Arabs would not be allowed to enjoy their new possessions in peace and security.

When ‘Amr acquainted the caliph with his success, letting him know that the Muslims were desirous of plundering the city. Omar, having received his letter, gave him thanks for his service, but blamed him for ever entertaining for one moment the idea of plundering so rich a city, and strictly charged him by no means to suffer the soldiers to make any waste, or spoil anything in It, but carefully to treasure up whatever was valuable, in order to defray charges in the time of war. And lastly, ordering that the tribute which was to be raised in that part of the country should be laid up in the treasury at Alexandria, to supply the necessities of the Muslims.

The inhabitants of Alexandria were then polled, and upon this the whole of Egypt followed the fortune and example of its metropolis, and the inhabitants compounded for their lives, fortunes, and free exercise of their religion, at the price of two ducats a head yearly. This head-money was to be paid by all without distinction, except in the case of a man holding land, farms, or vineyards, for in such cases he paid proportionally to the yearly value of what he held.’ 37

On 8th November 641 Cyrus signed an agreement surrendering the whole of Egypt to the Muslims. The terms of the new treaty were severe for the Byzantines who were forced to leave this rich province, but not for the local Christians and the Jews. They received from the Muslims the same favourable treatment which had previously been accorded to the ‘People of the Book’ in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. 38 The inhabitants would be allowed the free practice of their religion. The Byzantine army that had been allowed a year’s grace to evacuate the country did so, and in September 642, the evacuation was complete. 39

Toward the end of 645, a large Byzantine fleet was prepared with the greatest possible secrecy, placed under Manuel, an Armenian, and dispatched to capture the city of Alexandria. 40 No Muslim vessels sailed the Mediterranean and no warning reached Egypt of what was taking place. 41 Suddenly one morning in the autumn of 645, the fleet of three hundred ships was seen bearing down upon the harbour of Alexandria. The troops were soon disembarked. Caught by surprise, and too few in number, the Muslims offered little resistance. The Muslim garrison of 1,000 men was slaughtered, and Alexandria was once more in Byzantine hands. 42 The Byzantine forces emerged from the town and overran a large part of the lower delta. 43

No sooner did this crisis arise in Egypt than Caliph Othman (Caliph 644-656) immediately reappointed ‘Amr ibn al ‘As as commander-in-chief and despatched him post haste to Egypt. 44 ‘Amr appears to have delayed in Babylon, in order to draw the Byzantines southwards. 45 Eventually when they reached Nikiou, nearly 100 miles from Alexandria, they encountered ‘Amr at the head of perhaps some 15,000 Muslims. A fierce battle followed, the outcome of which remained long in doubt. 46 Eventually the Byzantines gave way, and as soon as they commenced to retire, their retreat became a rout. They eventually reached Alexandria in complete confusion after fleeing for 100 miles with the Muslims in pursuit. 47 When ‘Amr encamped before Alexandria, he found the Greeks well prepared to oppose him. They gave him battle for several days together, and held out bravely. 48 The obstinacy of their defence so provoked him, that he swore, if God gave him the victory, he would pull down the walls of the town, and make it as easy of access as a bagnio. He was as good as his word; for when, after a short time, he had taken the town, he demolished all the walls and fortifications, and entirely dismantled it. However, he dealt very merciful with the inhabitants, and saved as many of their lives as he could. 49 Manuel, the emperor’s general, being totally defeated, retired, with as many of his men as he could carry off, to the sea-shore; where, weighing anchor with all possible speed, they hoisted sail, and returned to Constantinople. 50 This second capture of Alexandria took place sometime in the summer of 646. The campaign had lasted about nine months. 51

In the administration of Egypt, Gibbon says, ‘Amr ‘balanced the demands of justice and policy; the interest of the people of the law, who were defended by God; and of the people of the alliance, who were protected by man.’ 52 To the Copts, ‘Amr declared, that faction and falsehood would be doubly chastised; by the punishment of the accusers, whom ‘he should detest as his personal enemies, and by the promotion of their innocent brethren, whom their envy had injured.’ 53 He asked the Muslims, Gibbon says, ‘To abide by the summons of their faith and their honour to sustain the dignity of their character, to endear themselves by a modest and temperate conduct to God and the caliph, to spare and protect a people who had trusted to their faith, and to content themselves with the legitimate and splendid rewards of their victory.’ 54

It was whilst he was in Egypt and during the internal Muslim strife, in 661, that three Kharijites plotted to kill Caliph Ali, Mu’ayiyah, and ‘Amr. One of the conspirators was in Egypt, on Friday the seventeenth of the month Ramadan, the day appointed to strike his blow; ‘Amr was then, fortunately for him, troubled with a fit of the cholic, which hindered him that day from performing the office of Imam in the mosque. 55 He therefore appointed another man to replace him. When the assassin struck, the replacement fell down dead with the blow, which the assassin gave him. The murderer, as he was led to his execution, said, without any trouble: “I designed ‘Amr, but God designed another.”

Other sources say that when he was brought before ‘Amr, he asked who that was. They told him: ‘Amr. The murderer then asked whom had he killed. They answered Karijah. Then ‘Amr said to him, “You meant ‘Amr, but God meant Karijah.” 56

‘Amr began to send Muslim armies into North Africa, but these early expeditions had no lasting impact. After the accession of Mu’awiya b. Abi Sufyan to the caliphate in 41/661, he started a new wave of conquests. Egypt was entrusted for the second time to ‘Amr, who resumed the sending of expeditionary forces into North Africa. 57 This time the Arabs had to start from the beginning. Even the Berber tribes of Luwata who had supported them previously started now to reject their rule. A small expedition was sent in 40/660 (during Ali’s Caliphate) under Shurayk b. Sumayy al-Muradi to subdue these tribes in Western Barqa. 58 The following year, ‘Uqba b. Nafi’ led another expedition to control the same tribes, which he found had moved towards Tripoli, and had broken their ties with the Arabs. ‘Uqba succeeded and the Berbers of Luwata and Mazata paid allegiance to him. 59

The Berbers of Pentapolis had been causing continual trouble, and from 661 to 663 ‘Amr sent more than one expedition against them. When at the end of 663 his lieutenants returned in triumph, they found ‘Amr at Fustat in his last illness, soon to pass away. 60

Reading List

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  1. Ibn Kutaibah, Ibn Khallikan, and Abu’l Mahasin. Ibn Khallikkan’s account of Amr has been translated by De Slane: in A.J. Butler: The Arab Conquest of Egypt, Oxford 1902, p. 199.
  2. Uqbah Ibn Amir quoted by Abu’l Mahasin and An-Nawawi in slightly different terms.
  3. M. Lings: Muhammad; op cit; p. 82.
  4. Ibid; p. 81.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid; pp. 83-4.
  7. Ibid; p. 84.
  8. Ibid;
  9. A.I. Akram: Khalid Ibn Waleed; op cit; pp. 70-1.
  10. S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; op cit; p. 96.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Al-Bakri: Futuhat al-Sha’am; ed. W.N. Lees; Calcutta; 1853-4; pp. 8-111; 40-2.
  13. Al-Baladhuri: Kitab Futuh al-Buldan tr. by P. K. Hitti, Columbia University Press, 1916 and 1924, vol 1; p. 178.
  14. J.B. Glubb: The Great Arab Conquests; op cit; p. 132.
  15. Ibid.
  16. L. Caetani: Annali dell Islam. 10 vols, Milan, U. Hoepli, 1905-26;, III, pp. 22-4.
  17. .M. Donner: The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press; 1981, p. 129.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Collected in L. Caetani: Annali, op cit, III, pp. 7481
  21. Al-Tabari: Tarikh al-Rusul wal Muluk (Annales); ed M.J. de Goeje et al, 15 vols, Leiden, Brill, 1879-1901,.i./2125-6 (I.I)
  22. Eutychius: Annales; ed by L. Cheiko; et al; 2 vols; CSCO (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium), Scriptores Arabici; ser 3; 2: 14.
  23. See F.M. Donner: The Early, op cit, pp. 133-4.
  24. Ibid, p. 151.
  25. Ibid, pp. 152-3.
  26. S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; op cit; p. 244.
  27. Ibid; p. 245.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid; pp. 246-8.
  30. Ibid; p. 253.
  31. J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p. 57.
  32. Abu Salih: Churches and Monasteries of Egypt; Ed. Evetts and Butler; Oxford, 1895, 4 vols, p. 167. Al-Istkhri: Bibl Geogr Arab, ed De Goeje, pt. i., p. 53.
  33. F. Gabrieli: Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam, World University Library, London, 1968, p. 170.
  34. P.K. Hitti: History; op cit; p. 160; J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p. 57.
  35.  F. Gabrieli: Muhammad, op cit, p. 171; Al-Baladhuri: Kitab Futuh al-Buldan; op cit; p. 213.
  36. P. K. Hitti: History; op cit; p. 164.
  37. S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; op cit; pp. 259-62.
  38. H.U. Rahman: A Chronology of Islamic History: 570-1000 CE; Mansell Publishing Limited; London; 1989H.U. Rahman: A Chronology; op cit; p. 29.
  39. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol 5, Methuen &Co, London, 1923, p. 451. J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p. 59.
  40. Al-Baladhuri: Kitab Futuh al-Buldan; op cit; p. 221.
  41. J. Glubb: The Great Arab Conquests; op cit; p. 282.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. A.J. Butler: The Arab Conquest of Egypt, Oxford 1902, p. 471.
  45. J. Glubb: The Great Arab Conquests; op cit; p. 282.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; op cit; p. 275.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. J.B. Glubb: The Great Arab Conquests; op cit; 284
  52. E. Gibbon: Decline and Fall, op cit, p. 455.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; op cit; p. 327.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Al-Kindi: Al-Wulat and al-Qudat; Beirut; 1908; pp. 31-2.
  58. A.D. Taha: The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of North Africa and Spain; Routledge; London; 1989; p. 58.
  59. Ibn al-Athir: Usud al-Ghaba; Al-Maktaba al-Islamiya; 1280 H; vol iii; p. 420-1.
  60. A.J. Butler: The Conquest, op cit, p. 494.