We have seen the city of Gaza, what appears to be now a collection of makeshift refugee camps and slums, forming part the Gaza Strip after 60 years of Israeli rule, on the news constantly at the moment. Many have been on demonstrations, written letters, and otherwise campaigned in order to support its people. However, how many of us are actually aware of this areas rich history? Through understanding our past, muslims can inshallah shape their own futures.
Gaza is an area in the southern Levant, an area we now call Palestine. The main city is Gaza City, which is the subject of a great deal of this research. Its population have suffered more than two millennia of oppression, other than when it was governed by Islam. Its first record can be found within the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, when the governor of Canaan took up residence there, in the 12Century BC. After this, according to religious scriptures, namely the Old Testament, it is recorded that this area and others were taken over by the “Philistines”, hence the name “Palestine.” From this point on, historically it was colonised by various empires, including those of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans and Alexander the Great.
When Alexander captured the area, it was only after an intensely fought military campaign. The people of Gaza were tenacious and rebellious, and only after five months of constant siege, much like the 14 month blockade we have seen since 2007 till today, did he succeed in capturing the area. The men fought to the death, until only women and children were left. From this point on, after he enslaved and extradited the local population as slaves, he repopulated the area with neighbouring Bedouins from the Arab lands, as well as importing and encouraging greek philosophers and artisans to the city of Gaza.
After a period of some stability, Gaza was raided by a rival empire, that of the Hasmoneons, a tribe of Jews who had emerged as a rebel province from that of the Selucids ( who were the successors of Alexander the Greats kingdom). This period of the rebel jewish self-rule is the foundation for their claims for the state of Zion, however Allah(swt) took this state away from them by the Romans by 37 BCE, which would approximately coincide with the arrival of Isa (AS) according to traditional scriptures. As no details are provided in the Qu’ran with regards exact dates, it is difficult to validate the claims of other religious books that have no doubt been corrupted.
When roman rule arrived in Gaza, Shirk flourished. It was home to many temples and idols, including those of Zeus, Helios, Apollo and other roman idols. After some Christians converted in the late 200’s , they were heavily persecuted. Finally, when Constantine made Christianity the state religion, Gaza of course followed suit. All of its pagan temples were destroyed and Gaza for all intents and purposes became a Christian city. Gaza was one of the most important commercial centres on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, and a valuable jewel in the Roman empire.
When Islam came of course, everything changed. The city and region was captured by the muslims under the great army of Amr ibn Al-As (ra), who converted with Khalid ibn Waleed (ra). He engaged in a siege against the Byzantine (Eastern Roman ) Empire in 635. During this period, the citys jewish population fought with the Byzantines against the muslims. The muslims were victorious and Gaza became the first city taken from the Byzantines on the Palestine coast.
Once captured, everything in the city changed. Churches were turned into Masjids, the population accepted the just rule of the Khilafah Rashidun willingly, and a province that had previously been extremely rebellious accepted Islam and Arabic as the language of the province. From this point onwards, Gaza became a city of learning which generated some of the greatest scholars and academics. For example, Muhammad Idris Shafi was born there, who went on to be one of the founders of Islamic Jurispudence. The city also became a key link for trade between the Hijaz and the Mediterranean, and the Persian geographer Al-Istakhri commented as such.
Sadly, after a period of immense wealth,trade and academia, Gaza fell into decline when the rulers of Palestine began disputing and fighting amongst themselves, allowing their wealth and seeking of power to cause division between the muslims. How much history repeats itself today! One of these rebellious kingdoms of Egypt, the Fatimids, allowed Gaza to fall into complete disrepair as they focussed their taxation revenues from trade on their own palaces rather than the upkeep of the cities within their control. This is despite Gazas agriculture being extremely fertile, with new fruits never seen in the region before, such as oranges from India, being prevalent and flourishing.
When Gaza was captured by the Christian crusaders in 1100, they claim they found the city nearly deserted. What a sad state of affairs for a city that had been a centre of trade and learning, until quarrelling, infighting and the seeking of the dunya destroyed it.
The story of Gaza however is nowhere near finished. In part two I will look at the resurgence of Gaza under Salah-ud-din, and the revival spearheaded by the Uthmani khilafah.