How many brave horsemen and how many beautiful,
chaste women were killed in the valley of ‘Amwās.
They had encountered the Lord, but He was not unjust
to them.
When they died, they were among the non-aggrieved 
people in Paradise.
We endure the plague as the Lord knows, and we were
consoled in the hour of death.

Twelfth-century historian, Ibn ‘Asākir 

Primary Arabic sources tell us that around 638, a severe plague broke out in ‘Amwās, the ancient Emmaus in Syria, resulting in massive fatalities among the soldiers of the Arab army. The caliph – more solemnly, the Rightly Guided Caliph – ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, concerned about the safety of his commander Abū ‘Ubayda, summons him to make his way back to Medina forthwith. But, then, knowing the firebrand commitment of the commander and his uncompromising zeal, the caliph acts pragmatically: he gives an alternative formulation to his purpose, sending the message that the commander is required for an ‘urgent matter’. And yet, Abū ‘Ubayda manages to sense the underlying intent of the caliph and refuses. 

While one is tempted to pause over the political implications of this act of what may be called open insubordination on the part of an army, and over its meaning in terms of the non-autocratic nature of the caliph’s governance, let’s continue with the story. In order to withdraw Abū ‘Ubayda from the plague-stricken region, Caliph ‘Umar decides to travel towards Syria himself. He reaches the garrison post at a place called Sargh, and meets the military commander personally. Here a caliphal consultative council is set up to decide the matter, an exercise that ends in a cold deadlock. But reports tell us that the leaders of the tribe of Quraysh had definitive advice for the caliph – supporting his concerns, their counsel is to make the commander and his army depart from the infected area. Abū ‘Ubayda protests, saying that this amounts to fleeing from the decree of God. ‘Yes, but this is fleeing from the decree of God to the decree of God,’ responds the caliph. Thereupon, the army withdraws from ‘Amwās.

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