The Ijtema – Bringing Truth Forward®

Ghulam Zarafa: The greatest Muslim seaman in history! A force that alarmed the Byzantine empire!

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As salaamu alaii kumm wa rahmatullahi wa barakath,

Leo - the ijtema

Brief info:

1. Ghulam Zarafa a.k.a Leo of Tripolis in Byzantine history.

2. Profession: Sailor.

3. Revert to Islam at the age of 12.

4. Early youth: Left home. Discovered and learnt.

5. Later: Left home. Imparted, Instilled. Kicked ass. Kicked some more ass. Actually a lot. Rewrote history. Must have kicked more ass for sure – but sadly, no account available.

6. Awesomeness rating on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest: 9.

Read on to know the reasons:

About the end of the third century A.H. (9th A.D.) there appeared in the east of the Mediterranean the greatest seaman of that age; in fact, the greatest Muslim seaman of all times.

He is the admiral known to the Byzantine chronicle by the name of Leo of Tripolis; and it records his daring naval expeditions and invasions in the waters of the Byzantine Empire, and the terror and woes which these invasions caused to the Empire.

Who is this Leo of Tripolis?

He is the admiral or general whom the Muslim historians call Ghulam Zarafa.

The Arabic records throw no light on his origin, but the Byzantine records say that Leo of Tripolis was born of Christian parents in Attalia, near Pamphylia, in the south-east of Asia Minor, and in his early youth joined the Muslim bands and embraced Islam and set led in Tripolis, the port of Syria.

Leo passed hits early youth on board ships and acquired his military experience on the waves of the sea. He took part in many invasions and plundering expeditions, organized by Muslim naval bands to invade the shores, ports and islands of the Archipelago. He then went to Tarsus where he gathered under his flag the ablest and bravest Muslim seamen of the age.

He used Tarsus as his headquarters and became, with his strong daring band, a force which alarmed the Byzantine!

Empire and its ports:

The greatest invasion undertaken by Leo of Tripolis or Ghulam Zarafa was that of Thessalonica in 904 A.D. (291 A.H.); The Muslim chronicle refers briefly to this great invasion, while the Byzantine chronicle gives lengthy details. The following is the concise Muslim record: “In 291 A.H. the well-known Commander, Ghulam Zarafa, sailed from Tarsus to Greece. He stormed the city of Antioch, which is equal to Constantinople, by the sword, killing five thousand men and taking as many prisoners. He also saved as many Muslim captives. He captured sixty Greek ships laden with valuables, effects and slaves; these, with the spoils from Antioch, he divided and a single portion was equal to one thousand dinars.”

Antioch mentioned here is Salonica, not Antioch of Syria which was at that time a Muslim port.

We shall now give the details of the Byzantine version as recorded by a contemporary historian who was an eyewitness of this event, namely John Caminiatis. Leo of Tripolis sailed from Tarsus in fifty-four ships each carrying about two hundred combatants, besides a number of chosen chiefs and officers. On the way he was joined by the bravest corsairs in the waters of the East.

The Byzantine fleet, sent by Emperor Leo VI to defend the ports of the Empire, did not dare to meet the Muslim ships. He withdrew to the shores of the Hellespont, leaving the waters of the Archipelago open before the invaders. It was reported in Constantinople that the invaders were aiming at the port of Thessalonica, which was at that time the greatest, strongest and richest after Constantinople, and nature had contributed immensely to the rich fertility of this region.

Thessalonica is situated on the hills of Olympus overlooking thecape of a narrow isthmus in which ships can take refuge. It was separated from it by a huge wall extending for a mile along the shore, and protected by strong forts built on high hills. But they were in those days in a state of dilapidation, the upper ledge of the great wall being demolished on the side of the sea making it possible for the ships to approach the walls of the city.

Petronas, commander of the garrison, therefore, tried to repulse the invading ships by throwing into the water great quantities of huge rocks and pieces of marble which adorned Hellenic tombs, to expose the ships of the invaders to the arrows and fires of the Greeks. As for the inhabitants of the city, they placed their confidence in St. Dimitrius, patron of their city and felt sure that he could repulse the new danger. Alarming rumours of the advance of the invaders spread every day.

Leo of Tripolis had chased the Byzantine fleet to the strait of the Hellespont and returned to Thasos. When Petronas died suddenly, an officer named Nikitas assumed command, and did all he could to prepare the means of defence, and brought some of the Sclavonian troops from the neighboring countries. But the inhabitants of the city did not lose confidence in St. Dimitrius and hurried after the priests and the bishop to the church of this Saint and prayed night and day. As for Leo of Tripolis, he spent some time in Thasos to repair his ships and get the catapults and other implements of destruction ready.

On Sunday, July 29, 904, rumor spread in the city that the invaders had reached the gulf and hid themselves there.

Terror and alarm, weeping and lamentations spread everywhere and the inhabitants got ready to fight while wives and children were shedding tears. Finally the Muslim ships appeared and advanced towards the city, its anchorage being protected by huge chains stretched between the two shores. Several ships were sunk there to prevent the approach of the assailants.

The Muslim admiral having reconnoitered the entrance and the forts of the city made a local attack to examine their strength and to see how far the inhabitants were ready to defend it. On the following day the Muslims attacked the city from the east and tried to scale the wall by ladders and discharging catapults. But they were repulsed before a torrent of stones and arrows of the Byzantines.

Leo of Tripolis then resorted to another stratagem.

He sent his advance-guard with covered fire injectors so that they would be protected from the fire of the defenders. The advance-guard kindled fire under the easternwalls of the city and withdrew under a rain of arrows and stones. The flames rose and the iron gates gave way but the Muslims gained no advantage, as it appeared that the passages beyond the doors were blocked with strong buildings on which impregnable forts were built. The aim of Leo of Tripolis in making these preliminaries was to divert the attention of the defenders from his real object. He found that he could get over the wall of the city in several places he had marked.

He then began to put into action his final plan with the greatest ability and speed. Several ships were securely tied, every two together, on the decks of which he set up a high wooden tower. On the following morning these towers were pushed to the lowest parts of the wall ; each was provided with a number of chosen Muslims who could overlook the towers of the defenders. A terrible fight raged between the two sides, and the Muslims showered on the Byzantines an incessant rain of stones, arrows and the Greek fire which they had just begun to use in that age.  

The Greeks withdrew from the towers, and the seamen of the Alexandrian ships were the first who attacked the wall. They rushed at the other towers and drove the Greeks out and opened the gates of the city.

The Muslims then stormed it from all sides, and the seamen who were to gather the spoils, with drawn swords and wearing nothing but trousers, entered the city, and the Byzantines and the Sclavonians fled in all directions. The Muslims then divided themselves into groups which roamed in the city killing, plundering and taking captives. The Byzantine historian John Caminiatis and several members of his family were among the captives. He fell into the hands of a number of Abyssinians whom he asked for mercy and whom he promised to lead to the place where the treasures of his family were hidden. One of these Abyssinians knew Greek; the chief of this band led him to the Admiral who sent with him some men to carry the treasure. Fortunately for Caminiatis the treasure was intact.

Leo of Tripolis accepted it as ransom for the life of the historian and his family, and ordered him and other captives to be taken to Tarsus where they were to be exchanged against Muslim captives in the hands of the Byzantines. After several days spent by the Muslims in pillage and taking captives Leo of Tripolis left Thessalonica laden with huge spoils and a large number of captives estimated by John Caminiatis at twenty-two thousand men, women and youths, chosen for the wealth of their families in order to be ransomed, or for their beauty to be sold in the slave markets at high prices. Many of the captives were noble Greeks who suffered much in ships, many died from hunger and cold.

Leo of Tripolis sailed with his ships avoiding the Byzantine fleet, in order that he should not be harassed while his ships were laden with spoils. He anchored at Zantarium, a Cretan port, where for several days he distributed the spoils and the captives. The ships then separated, each party of seamen returning to their own respective ports in the waters of Egypt and Syria. Leo arrived in Tripolis on 24th September, 904, whence he sailed to Tarsus which was the base for ransoming and exchanging captives between Muslims and Byzantines. There the nobles of Thessalonica, including the historian Caminiatis, were exchanged against Muslim captives.

It was from the writings of this historian that we extracted the story of this great invasion !

This is a short account of the annals of the Muslim seamen. It proves that the naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea was held by the Muslims for long generations, and that the annals of these conquests and naval expeditions which ended with the conquest of Crete, Sicily and the southern ports of Italy and which could crossthe sea in all directions as far as Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Empire, and even Rome, the capitalof Christianity, and Genoa, the farthest Italian port, were not less important and daring than the invasions of the Spanish and English seamen in the sixteenth century in the American waters.

[Source: The Decisive Moments in the History of Islam by Muhammad Abdullah Enan]

* * *

The.Ijtema® Conclusion

The literal meaning of his name is: ‘Slave of the beloved one’ [Ghulam means slave and Zarafa means beloved]. As you see the account of his history is taken from a historian, Caminiatis, who was taken captive by Ghulam Zarafa [may Allah be pleased with him] – which means there’ll definitely be some sort of bias against one of the great Heroes of Islam and Muslims. But what can be safely said is that Ghulam Zarafa achieved lasting glory when he left his comforts, when he left his hearth…when he left home. Glory lies in leaving home.

Wa laii kumm as salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakath

Author: Salman

Know me by my work.

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