Expansion of Islam (600–1200)

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Expansion of Islam (600–1200)

Major Figures


The founder of a major religion typically is not a military leader. However, Muhammad (c. 570–632), the Prophet of Islam, was both a man of god and a man of war. Out of necessity, Muhammad went from being a merchant and prophet to being a military leader in order not only to defend his faith, but to defend those who joined his revolutionary religion.

Life Before Gabriel

Muhammad was born into the Quraysh tribe, which was centered on the important pilgrimage site of Mecca. Mecca was important not only because it was on the trade routes running through Arabia but also because it housed the Kaaba, thought to be the house of Abraham. However, it had also become the house of many idols, such as those belonging to several tribes within the region.

As a youth, Muhammad was an orphan raised by his uncle, Abu Talib. Under his care, Muhammad became a merchant and entered the employ of Khadijah, a wealthy widow. In 595, the two were married. Muhammad became renown through the region for his business acumen as well as his character.

An Angel Speaks to Muhammad

In 610, Muhammad began to receive revelations from the angel Gabriel who informed Muhammad that he was the last prophet of God. These revelations ultimately became the Quran (Koran), the fundamental book of Islam.

After being convinced that he had not gone mad, Muhammad accepted his role as prophet and began to attract followers. However, because of his insistence on monotheism, Muhammad also attracted enemies. The only-one-god concept went directly against a mainstay of the Meccan economy; namely, the pilgrimage trade to the idols of Mecca. Eventually not only were his followers persecuted, but Muhammad himself was targeted. After his uncle Abu Talib and his wife died in 619, the clans of Mecca decided to murder Muhammad for being a divisive and corrupting influence in society.

Fortunately for Muhammad, he had learned of the plot and escaped to the city of Yathrid (now known as Medina), located north of Mecca. There, the leading tribes accepted his followers and offered him protection. Muhammad fled there in 622, which marks year one of the Islamic calendar.

The Prophet Fights

Medina is where Muhammad began his military career, mainly out of self-defense. The Meccans would not tolerate his existence, and Muhammad did nothing to discourage this feeling as he raided Meccan sponsored caravans. His raids began out of need, but then expanded as war broke out. Initially, however, Muhammad’s raids were ineffective as most of his men were city dwellers and not well versed in warfare. Muhammad then began to establish relations with local Bedouin tribes, after which the caravan attacks became successful.

The first major battle was at Bedr, along the caravan route to Syria. In January 624, Muhammad marched with slightly more than three hundred men toward Bedr, hoping to intercept a larger caravan returning from Syria. While he expected to have to deal with only thirty caravan guards, he encountered a Meccan force three times his size that had arrived to escort the caravan to Mecca.

The Meccans were divided on whether to fight or not as they had secured the caravan. However, the hawk party won out and they attacked Muhammad’s party. After some skirmishing by various champions, the battle began in earnest. The Muslims held their lines and shot arrows at the Meccans. The Meccans advanced toward the sun and over sand dunes against the Muslims. In the end, the discipline and the ardor of the Muslims—who truly saw it as a life-or-death struggle—won out. The half-hearted attack collapsed and the Muslims routed the Meccans, thus gaining an important victory for the Muslims.

The next battle took place at Uhud in January 625, near Medina. Muhammad’s depredations on the caravans had increased, so a new Meccan force of three thousand men was sent to deal with the marauders. There was little threat to the city of Medina itself, as its high walls were sufficient to protect it against the Meccans who had no practical siege experience. However, the Muslim youth, still riding the elation of the victory at Bedr, sought battle. With a force of seven hundred men, Muhammad led his men forth. His key unit consisted of archers that he stationed on the left flank of his army with explicit orders not to leave their post. The right flank was guarded by a spur of Mount Uhud.

The battle consisted primarily of a mass melee. Meccan horsemen did try to turn the Muslim flank, but were kept at bay by the strategically placed archers. A sudden charge finally broke the Meccan lines. However, rather than pursue and crush their enemies, the Muslims’ discipline broke and they began looting the Meccan camp. The archers who had secured the Muslim flank then joined in.

At this point, Khalid ibn al-Walid, who would later become perhaps the greatest Arab commander, rallied the Meccans and counterattacked and defeated the Muslims. Muhammad suffered multiple wounds in the combat, but he and his followers escaped to the safety of Mount Uhud, which was more defensible. Nonetheless, victory went to Mecca on that day.

The Conflict Continues

After Uhud, Muhammad swore revenge for the death of his uncle, Hamza. He was also repulsed by the mutilation of bodies that the Meccans carried out. Although Muhammad did do the same to thirty members of the Quraysh in revenge for Hamza, he ultimately forbade the mutilation of the dead, which had been a custom in the Arabian Peninsula.

Even though he was once defeated, Muhammad pressed on with his raiding. Caravans and tribes allied to Mecca were targets. Muhammad clearly viewed the conflict with Mecca as one of life and death. Muhammad’s successful raiding also began to attract support from more Bedouin tribes. Although they may have accepted Islam, their main interest was financial rewards through raiding. The threat increased to the point that in early 627, the Meccans finally gathered an army of ten thousand to smite down Muhammad once and for all.

The news quickly reached Medina. Resisting three thousand men was one thing, but ten thousand was quite another; there was a real possibility Medina would fall. Fortunately for the Muslims, among them was a Persian convert to Islam (and former slave) named Salman who suggested digging a ditch and building a breastwork to better fortify the town. Considering that the Arabs on either side had no siege expertise, this was revolutionary. Even Muhammad joined in the digging and they completed it just before the arrival of the Meccan forces.

The new fortifications nonplussed the Meccans. The Bedouin allies of the Meccans had little desire to camp and wait out the Muslims. With rations growing short, many Bedouins departed. After twenty days with only a little skirmishing, the Meccans and their allies broke camp and departed. For the Muslims, it was another sign that God was on their side. The victory only increased the prestige of Muhammad and decreased that of Quraysh in Mecca.

Muhammad Takes Mecca

Thus in early 630, Muhammad marched on Mecca, and the city surrendered without a fight. In return for its submission, Muhammad did not allow his men to pillage the city. The only damage they did was to smash all of the idols around the Kaaba, showing to all of the Meccans, that indeed, Allahu akbar, or “God is greater than their gods.”

After this, most of the Arab peninsula came under Muhammad’s control and raiding parties struck at the Byzantine and Sasanid Empire. One reason for this was to keep the often quarrelsome tribes occupied by attacking someone else rather than each other. Although Muhammad died in 632, his accomplishments as a military commander are overshadowed only by his accomplishments as a religious leader.

Khalid ibn al-Walid

Khalid ibn al-Walid (c. 590–642) was the primary Arab general during the first phase of the Arab conquests in the seventh century. Later known as Sayf Allah (“the Sword of God”), Khalid initially fought against Muhammad and the early Muslim community.

Not an Early Convert

Like most Meccans, Khalid initially opposed the teachings of Muhammad. He was present on the side of the Meccans at the Battle of Uhud in 625, and was crucial to the Meccan victory there as he led the counterattack against the Muslims. Nonetheless, he converted to Islam in either 627 or 629. Historians are unsure of exactly when Khalid converted, but it is known that he was among the Muslims in 630 when the city of Mecca surrendered to Muhammad. He was also involved in raids into Byzantine territory in 629, including successfully leading a raiding party back to Medina after its commander had been killed.

When Muhammad died in 632, there was not a clear line of succession to the leadership. Many of the tribes that had submitted to Muhammad saw their agreement as one between Muhammad and their tribal leaders, so after his death, any agreements were ended. Thus when Abu Bakr, who ruled from 632 to 634, became the caliph or successor to Muhammad, he sent Khalid on several missions to quell the rebellions in what became known as the Hurub al-Riddah, or War of Apostasy. (Also adding to this turmoil was the appearance of many new prophets, who probably hoped to emulate the success that Muhammad had.)

Khalid quickly brought the rebels in the north and northeast of Arabia under control. In 632, while in the Nejd desert, he defeated the Asad, Tayyi, and Tamim tribes in several encounters. Then in 633, he entered eastern Arabia and crushed the Hanifa tribe, led by Musailima, a newly proclaimed prophet, at the Battle of Aqraba.

Expansion of the Faith

As Khalid demonstrated exceptional military prowess, he was placed in charge of an army to invade modern day Iraq in 634. There, Khalid brought other Arab tribes and towns under his control as well as moving north along the Euphrates to take control of the important trading nexus of Dumat al-Jandal. Soon he received word from Abu Bakr to assist Arab operations in Syria, part of the Byzantine Empire. To hasten his march, Khalid crossed the Syrian desert, thought by the Byzantines to be impassable.

Khalid’s exact role in Syria is unclear. Some sources place him as the primary commander, while others indicate that he was a lieutenant to Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah. Some believe that initially his success led Abu Bakr to promote him to supreme command of the Muslim army in Syria, and later he was demoted. Nonetheless, Khalid led troops in all of the major battles including the capture of Damascus and Hims as well as the battle of Yarmuk. Khalid’ meteoric rise and success on the battlefield earned him the sobriquet of Sayf Allah, although later sources refer to him with the less prestigious title of Sayf Rasul Allah, or the “Sword of the Messenger of God.”

A New Caliph Demotes the Old Guard

After the death of Caliph Abu Bakr in 634, Khalid’s fortunes waned. The new caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was not as enamored with Khalid as his predecessor. Umar demoted Khalid, despite Khalid’s victory over the Byzantines at the first Battle of Yarmouk in 634. It is not clear if he was demoted from the primary commander or just as one of the commanders. Umar did it because he wanted to make sure that Khalid remembered that his success in battle came from God and not to consider himself infallible.

The general, however, was not removed from Syria. He led troops in northern Syria as a lieutenant of Abu Ubayda and fought at the second Battle of Yarmouk in 636 and at the sieges of Jerusalem and Aleppo. After the Byzantines evacuated Syria, Khalid then led numerous raids during the summer on the frontier with the Byzantines until his death in 642.

When not participating in the raids, he lived a semi-retired life in Hims, located in modern Syria, where he died. As with his status with Caliph Umar, even Khalid’s death is immersed with speculation. Some scholars believe that Khalid was actually assassinated by Muawiya—a future caliph who was governor of Damascus at the time—out of envy of Khalid’s glory.


Ali ibn abi Talib (c. 600–661), who ruled as the fourth caliph between 656–661, was a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Ali was one of the first converts to Islam, and because of this, he was one of Muhammad’s trusted companions. In addition, Ali became Muhammad’s son-in-law with his marriage to Fatima (606–632), the daughter of Muhammad.

Islam in Its Infancy

Ali’s value as an aide to Muhammad became apparent in 622. Warned of an assassination plot against Muhammad, Ali stayed behind in Mecca, posing as the prophet while Muhammad escaped. The assassins were about to stab Ali when they realized their mistake; rather than risk invoking a blood feud with Ali’s relatives, the assassins spared his life. Ali later joined Muhammad in the hills surrounding Mecca and fled with him to Medina.

During war with Mecca, Ali rose to the forefront of the champions of Islam. He distinguished himself in single combat at Bedr (624), Uhud (625), and then at the Battle of the Ditch (627). Because of his close relationship to Muhammad and his prowess in battle, he seemed a logical successor to Muhammad. However, Muhammad did not leave instructions concerning who should lead after his death in 632. Thus Ali was overlooked while Abu Bakr, another close friend of Muhammad, took charge in the middle of the crisis of Muhammad’s death.

Troubles As Caliph

It was not until 656 that Ali came to power as the fourth caliph. His rise to power also caused a major crisis within Islam. His predecessor, Uthman ibn Affan, was assassinated by men dissatisfied with his policies of nepotism. Once in power, Ali did nothing to bring these men to justice, thus giving the impression to many that he approved of the assassination. The Umayyad clan, of which Uthman had been a member, was incensed against Ali for not avenging their relative. (Many Umayyads were governors, with the most powerful being Muawiya, the governor of Syria.)

Ali also had to deal with a rebellion of Zubayr, Talha, and Aisha (a wife of Muhammad). Zubayr and Talha, two companions of Muhammad and only slightly less prestigious than Ali at the time, were frustrated that Ali had not taken any action against the murderers of Uthman and for not dealing with unruly Bedouin tribes. However, their anger was not the same as the Umayyads; rather, they were upset that Ali was not quick at restoring law and order. Although they had sworn allegiance to Ali, they now began to have second doubts. Aisha, however, simply disliked Ali.

Zubayr and Talha departed Medina (the capital of the nascent Arab empire) for Mecca and found ample support against Ali. Thus a rebellion began. The rebels left Mecca with three thousand men and headed toward Basra in southern Iraq where Talha and Zubayr had additional supporters.

In the autumn of 656, Ali marched toward Iraq to deal with the rebellion. The Battle of the Camel (so called because Aisha, mounted in a camel litter, encouraged her troops at the battle) took place near Basra in 656. Ali had a bit more than ten thousand men and slightly outnumbered Zubayr and Talha.

Ali attempted to avoid battle, as it would pit Muslim against Muslim, something that Muhammad had strictly prohibited. Ultimately, negotiations failed and the battle began. In the end, Zubayr and Talha died and Ali was victorious. Aisha and her camel were a rallying point, but Ali undermined it by having a chosen warrior hamstring the camel. Its collapse signaled the end of the rebellion. Aisha was sent back to Medina where she lived until her death sometime in the late 670s.

Against The Umayyads

The next threat was from Muawiya. This came to a head at the Battle of Siffin, near Raqqa in Iraq, in the spring of 657. According to the sources, the armies were roughly equal, approaching fifty thousand men each.

The battle was slow paced due to a reluctance to fight, as again both sides were hesitant to pit Muslim against Muslim. There was some negotiation, but in the eyes of Muawiya, there was little to discuss.

Ali challenged Muawiya to single combat, but Muawiya excused himself from it. Skirmishing began and by the middle of summer, a full battle took place. After two days of fighting, the Syrian army was slowly pushed back. Ultimately, another truce came as a result of Syrian soldiers putting the Quran on their lances and demanding that the word of God decide the battle. Both sides agreed.

Ali had no choice but to once again go to arbitration. This time, Muawiya used another tactic. He no longer insisted on whether Ali supported the murders of Uthman, but whether Ali should be the caliph. The basic issue was that a caliph must mete out justice, and because Ali did nothing, Muawiya’s contention was that Ali was not fit to rule.

Arbitration concluded that neither Ali nor Muawiya could claim the caliphate and that the people would choose a new leader. However, the arbitrator for Muawiya, after denouncing Ali, immediately nominated Muawiya. Ali then rejected the decision.

Ironically, if Ali had simply continued the battle, he most likely would have emerged victorious. Instead, he listened to the rank and file and settled for arbitration. As a result, Muawiya became the unofficial caliph in Damascus and Ali remained in his position in his new capital of Kufa, in Iraq.

Ali was killed in 661 while exiting a mosque in Kufa by one of his former followers, Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam. Ibn Muljam and other ardent supporters had been disgusted by Ali’s willingness to negotiate a settlement and left him, forming the Islamic sect known has Kharajis. A small but radical group, the Kharajis viewed themselves as the only true Muslims and considered Ali a traitor to Islam for dealing with Muawiya.

Yazid I

The second Umayyad caliph, Yazid ibn Muawiya (c. 645–683) was a key figure in the split in Islam that created the divisions of Sunni and Shi’a Islam. He was a competent military leader, having served as a commander during his father’s siege of Constantinople in 669. However, Yazid I is best known for his role in the rise of Shi’a Islam and for having a disastrous reign.

Succession Troubles

Traditionally, the position of caliph, the successor to the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community, was an elected position; the most qualified figure in terms of leadership and personal piety was chosen. Muawiya, the governor of Syria ascended the caliphal throne after the death of Ali, the fourth caliph, in 656. During his fairly effective rule, Muawiya made Yazid (his son) his successor.

Securing support for Yazid was difficult, particularly as it went against tribal tradition. Many tribes were not interested in seeing a member of the Kalb tribe—the tribe of Yazid and his father—hold such a prominent post. Nonetheless, Muawiya succeeded in gaining support for his son, allowing Yazid to become caliph in 680, the year of Muawiya’s death.

Despite Muawiya’s efforts, after his death Yazid faced numerous rebellions. The greatest threat came from Husayn ibn Ali (626–680) and Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr (d. 692), who was the grandson of the second caliph (Abu Bakr) and also related to Muhammad. Both men rebelled almost instantly.

Husayn’s rebellion was not unexpected. Muawiya’s challenge to the authority of Ali at the Battle of Siffin (657) and the subsequent rise of the Umayyad Caliphate created a rift between the two factions. Indeed, Husayn’s elder brother was told not to meddle in politics in a thinly veiled threat by Muawiya. With Yazid’s reign, Husayn decided that the time had come to assert his family’s claim to be the rightful rulers of the Islamic empire. Thus he and a small band of followers marched toward Kufa in Iraq to start a rebellion.

Learning of these plans, Yazid quickly sent a large force to intercept them. The Umayyad forces intercepted them at Karbala, in Iraq, only twenty miles from Kufa. On October 10, 680, despite being vastly outnumbered, Husayn fought until he and his supporters were all dead.

This battle transformed Husayn and the Shiat Ali (Partisans of Ali) into martyrs. It also transformed a political faction who supported the claims of the family of Ali to the throne into a religious sect. The battle remains a centerpiece of Shi’a theology, known as Ashura, and is a holiday in which the martyrdom of Husayn is remembered.

Zubayr’s Rebellion

A graver threat to Yazid’s power came from the heart of Arabia where Ibn al-Zubayr rallied tribes who opposed Umayyad rule. Many tribes opposed the idea of dynastic rule since it violated tradition, but the event that formed a rebellion against Yazid was due to his policies. In 683, Yazid promulgated an order to confiscate land in the holy city of Medina. This struck at many leaders who opposed him; a rebellion arose, and Umayyad supporters were driven from the city. At the same time, Ibn al-Zubayr was proclaimed caliph in Mecca, a direct challenge to Yazid.

Yazid sent an army to Medina. They easily crushed the Medinans at the Battle of al-Harra. Then the Umayyad army marched on Mecca. Many scholars think that the rebellion would have been crushed then, but Yazid died in 683, and the siege was ended.

Ibn al-Zubayr then became the problem of Yazid’s successor. Ultimately, the unfinished conclusion of the siege allowed Ibn al-Zubayr to consolidate his strength and gain support throughout the empire. In addition, other rebellions broke out among the Shi’a and other sects such as the Kharijites. Most provinces recognized Ibn al-Zubayr as the caliph. He continued to be a thorn to the Umayyads until he was killed in 692.

Conflicts Internal and External

Perhaps Yazid’s reputation would be better if he had not died during the middle of a rebellion. However, Ibn al-Zubayr’s rebellion was not the only military difficulty Yazid encountered.

In eastern Persia, Arab armies were defeated in the regions of Sistan and Zabulistan after running over most of Persia with relative ease. Furthermore, a Berber revolt in North Africa threatened Umayyad control in North Africa. Finally, the Byzantines were on the offensive and threatening northern Syria. Yazid successfully stymied their efforts by building additional fortresses, but it prevented him from dealing with threats such as Ibn al-Zubayr.

In the end, Yazid’s reign is difficult to assess due to his early death. With rebellions throughout the empire, it would have been difficult for anyone to succeed in such a short frame of time.

Charles Martel

Charles Martel (c. 686–741) was the mayor of the palace of the Frankish Merovingian kingdom (consisting of France and parts of Germany). Although the Merovingians were the titular rulers, they had lost real power to the Frankish aristocracy, led by the mayors of the palace. Martel claimed his place in history by defeating Muslim invaders from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours).

The Long Shot

Charles, who gained his sobriquet or nickname of “Martel” or “Hammer” after his death, was an unlikely leader. He was not a legitimate heir to the position of mayor, being the son of Alpaida, a lesser wife. (It was not uncommon during this period for the rulers to have several wives in order to secure a male heir.) However, Martel defeated various claimants to the throne and was accepted as mayor of the palace in 718.

As it was an immense realm, administering the kingdom was difficult. Furthermore, Martel was surrounded by enemies: pagan Saxons and Germans, Lombards, and Muslims. After securing power, he launched a number of attacks against the Saxons and Germans to discourage them from invading. Martel also had to deal with recalcitrant nobles in southern France.

Checking the Muslims

However, the greatest task at hand for Charles was across the Pyrenees Mountains. This was the location of the Muslim kingdom of al-Andalus, created in 711 with the conquest of Spain. It was not long thereafter before Muslim raiders entered France. Gradually they began to occupy the southern coastline as well. During Charles’s reign as mayor, the Muslims began to extend their raids further north into central France.

In 732, Charles countered their attacks with a resounding victory somewhere between the modern locations of Tours and Poitiers, for which he was posthumously given the title of Martel. Although raids continued afterwards, Charles’s domains were not seriously threatened afterwards as he took steps to ensure their security.

His victory allowed him to consolidate his authority in the region of Aquitaine. On his frontier he fought other battles with the Muslims, but also brought the regions of Burgundy and Provence under his control as the nobles there often allied with the Muslims against him. During one of these conflicts, Martel recaptured Avignon in 737 and defeated Muslim armies at Narbonne and at Corbieres in the same year.

Martel also formed an alliance with the neighboring Lombards in modern day Switzerland and northern Italy. This was an odd match as the Lombards and Franks had clashed before. Furthermore, the Lombards encroached on lands held by the Papacy in Italy. Although Charles was a strong supporter of the Church, it was clear that his interests lay more in the defense of his realm rather than just religion. Indeed, Charles appointed and dismissed bishops while using the Church’s wealth to fund his wars.

Legacy of the Hammer

Charles Martel eventually became the founder of the Carolingian dynasty. However, this was not due to strategic planning. When the Merovingian king Theodoric IV died in 737, Charles did not replace him as had been the practice. Charles did not claim the throne himself, but after his death in 741, his son Pepin assumed his responsibilities and eventually took the title of king in 751.

Abd al-Rahman

Although the Umayyad dynasty continued in Spain after the Abbasid Revolution in 750, the rulers of al-Andalus, as Spain was called, it did not claim the title of caliph. This changed under Abd al-Rahman III (891–961), who revitalized Umayyad power and was the first to reclaim the title of caliph. Based in the great city of Cordoba, which rivaled Constantinople and Baghdad in splendor, Abd al-Rahman III built a powerful state and dealt with Muslim and Christian opponents.

Life in the Iberian Outback

Becaues of al-Andalus’ distance from the center of Islamic power in the Middle East, it developed differently. Conquered in 711 by Berbers and Arabs from North Africa, al-Andalus became a bastion of Umayyad power after the Abbasid revolution of 750. Initially the Umayyads there claimed the title of emir or commander, which gave a token nod of recognition to the Abbasids as the titular ruler. However, the Umayyads remained independent under the leadership of Abd al-Rahman I, who ruled from 756 to 788.

While Abd al-Rahman I provided unity, this fragmented after the death of Abd al-Rahman II in 852 due to factionalization between Berbers, Arabs, Muwallads (Spanish converts to Islam), Mozarabs (Spaniards who adopted Arabic language and customs), and the Jewish population. In addition, there was strife on the border between al-Andalus and the Christian north.

A Single City to Start With

When Abd al-Rahman III inherited the throne from his grandfather (Abd Allah) in 912, the ruler really only controlled Cordoba. Abd al-Rahman was of mixed ancestry, his mother was a Christian of either Frankish or Basque origins. As a result, he was born with a fair complexion and blonde or red hair, which he at times dyed. Even in his youth he was known for his bravery and intellect, qualities that served him well as he ascended the throne.

Almost immediately Abd al-Rahman began to restore Umayyad authority. In 912 and 913, he regained control over many of the provincial centers, including Seville. He then moved against Umar ibn-Hafsun, who since 883 had acted as an independent ruler near Malaga. Despite Abd al-Rahman’s efforts, Umar (who had converted to Christianity) successfully resisted him in the mountains. Although Umar died in 917, his sons carried out the resistance until 928. The defeat of the Hafsun family led to the submission of other rebels. By 932, Abd al-Rahman succeeded in unifying al-Andalus again.

Now secure in his rule, Abd al-Rahman took another step to increase his authority in his kingdom and beyond, as he adopted the title of caliph on January 16, 929. By doing so, al-Rahman placed himself on the same level of authority of the Abbasid ruler in Baghdad. This title made al-Rahman not only the secular ruler, but in theory, the ultimate religious authority in the kingdom. This was not a new innovation, as in North Africa the Fatimids (909–1171), a Shi’a Muslim dynasty, had also claimed the caliphate.

Against the Christians

During his unification of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman had to deal with an invasion from the Christian kingdoms of Navarre and Leon. After the Christians defeated his border forces at San Esteban de Gormaz in 917, the Muslim ruler had to abandon his campaign and lead his army to the frontier. Once there, Abd al-Rahman gained the offensive, recapturing lost territory and then crushing the combined forces of Leon and Navarre on July 26, 920, at the Battle of Valdejunquera.

Afterwards, Abd al-Rahman was determined to punish the Christian kingdoms, so he sacked Pamplona in Navarre in 924. Even this did not secure his border. In 930, Ramiro II of Leon invaded al-Andalus and pillaged the Duero and Ebro river valleys.

Abd al-Rahman’s subsequent invasions to punish Leon ended in failure. At Simancas in 939, Ramiro’s forces defeated Abd al-Rahman’s larger army on August 1. It is recorded that afterwards, Abd al-Rahman never personally led his armies again. However, conflict between the Christian kingdoms of Leon, Navarre, and Castile negated any real threat to al-Andalus.

Although he did not lead armies against them, Abd al-Rahman was still effective in manipulating the Christian rulers through diplomacy. Despite the threat from the north, this did not prevent Abd al-Rahman from having cordial relations with other Christian states, such as the Byzantine Empire or the Holy Roman Empire.

Afterwards, Abd al-Rahman’s reign was relatively quiet. In terms of religion, he was a moderate who based his policies on matters of maintaining control rather than religious dogma. He would brook no challenge to his authority from his Christian or Muslim subjects and neighbors. After his death in 961, al-Andalus slowly declined and eventually disappeared as a unified state by 1031.

Mahmud of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni (c. 971–1030) was the third ruler of an empire based in Afghanistan. Although theoretically subordinate to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, Mahmud established a vast empire that influenced events in the eastern Islamic world and was crucial to the spread of Islam or Islamic influences into Central Asia and India.

Empire Building

The Ghaznavid Empire, which lasted from 977 to1186, emerged from the ruins of its predecessor, the Samanid Empire. Located in Central Asia, this earlier empire lasted from 900 to 999. Alptigin, the Samanid governor of Ghazni in Afghanistan, founded an empire in the waning days of the Samanid dynasty. As the Ghaznavids expanded, ruling elites in conquered territories were often replaced with mamluks loyal to the ruler.

Although Alptigin is the nominal founder of the empire, it was his ghulam (slave), Sebuktigin, who truly raised the banner of empire in 977 by usurping power. Sebuktigin initially ruled as a governor of the Samanids, ruling much of Afghanistan. His son, Mahmud, served as one of his military commanders and conquered Khurasan (northeastern Iran) and part of Afghanistan.

Unlike his own rise to the throne, Sebuktigin envisioned a hereditary successor, namely one of his sons. For ambiguous reasons, he chose his son Ismail, even though Ismail possessed neither the administrative skill nor the martial abilities of Mahmud.

After Sebuktigin’s death, Mahmud did not want to deprive his brother; at the same time, Mahmud wanted his claim to the throne recognized. Mahmud asserted his superior administrative and military experience as legitimate reasons why he, and not Ismail, should be the ruler. This was a calculated maneuver, as this fact would be in the minds of the military commanders or emirs. When mediation failed, Mahmud resorted to war and defeated his brother. Ismail was then kept under house arrest away from the center of power.

Opportunities in War

After his victory, the Samanids confirmed Mahmud—who was still technically a vassal of the Samanids—in his position and possessions. The one exception was the region of Khurasan, which was given to the emir of Bukhara, a person named Begtuzun.

In retrospect, Khurasan was not a good gift to bestow. With his new territory, Begtuzun was then powerful enough to depose emir Abul Harith Mansur, the Samanid sultan, and raise another Samanid to the throne. Mahmud used this opportunity to attack Begtuzun, legitimatizing his attack against another Muslim ruler by defending the rightful Samanid ruler. Initially, the conflict ended unresolved, but war resumed and Mahmud emerged as the victor.

After his victory, Mahmud sent a report to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, al-Qadir Billah. In return, the caliph sent Mahmud a patent of sovereignty over Khurasan in 999. His investiture by the caliph led to further correspondence between Ghazni and Baghdad; indeed, many of Mahmud ’s actions often seemed designed in order to gain recognition and legitimacy from Baghdad, or at least it was a benefit.

In October 999, the Qarakhanids, a Turkic dynasty in Central Asia, ended the feeble remnants of the Samanids. Bukhara fell before them, but some of the Samanids escaped to Khwarazm where they attempted to establish a new power base. From Khwarazm they tried to regain Khurasan from Mahmud, but the Ghaznavid ruler (and alleged vassal of the Samanids) soundly defeated them.

Connection to the Caliph

Mahmud continually strove to legitimate his reign. In particular, the caliph’s approval was crucial, so Mahmud undertook three actions in order to maintain this close relationship. The first measure was to include the caliph’s name on his coins. Second, a share of the plunder from Mahmud went to Baghdad as a gift from the Ghaznavid ruler. Finally, Mahmud depicted himself in his correspondence with Baghdad as a ghazi, or holy warrior, as he campaigned not only against Hindus in India, but also against Shi’a elements in Iran. The latter also served another purpose in that it enabled Mahmud and later Ghaznavids to portray themselves as defenders of Sunnism.

Although Mahmud depicted himself as a ghazi and undertook frequent expeditions into India and against the Shi’a, he was not a fanatical Muslim. He did not plunder the Hindus during periods of peace, and a separate quarter for them existed in Ghazni. Furthermore, as Hindu troops comprised a significant part of his army (a tribute from vassal Hindu princes), Mahmud could ill afford to alienate them. His legitimacy over the Hindu princes was due not only to his martial prowess, but also his just rule. While Mahmud encouraged the spread of Islam into India, he only acted as a ghazi during war. Once peace had been established, Mahmud proved himself to be a tolerant ruler.

The Ghaznavid Army

Under Mahmud, the army was the central institution of the state. It is estimated that the Ghaznavid army maintained a standing force of 35,000–55,000 soldiers with over a thousand elephants. Of course, this force could be increased by levies and auxiliaries.

The core of the Ghaznavid army consisted of mamluks. Although they were comprised of a wide variety of ethnicities, the majority were Turks. The Ghaznavid sultans attempted—with only moderate success—to prevent the accumulation of mamluk corps among provincial governors, as they might rival their own power.

Elephants, collected as tribute from Indian princes or as plunder, were also extensively used in battle. Indeed, the Ghaznavids were the first among Islamic states to deploy elephant tactical units in battle, including formations of one hundred elephants. Commanders were assigned elephants as command centers, giving them a vantage point in which to view the battlefield.

Although the elephants were intimidating, the primary arm of the military was the cavalry, including heavy and light forces. Infantry also formed a large percentage of the military, but it was primarily used in siege operations.

Shield of Islam

With campaigns against Shi’ites in Iran, Hindus in India, and infidel Turks in Central Asia, the Ghaznavids served as the defenders of orthodoxy until the Turkic Seljuks supplanted them.

Toghril Beg

Toghril Beg (c. 990–1063) was the founder of the Seljuk Empire, which at its height stretched from modern Afghanistan into Turkey. He was the grandson of Seljuk, the namesake of the Seljuk tribe (a subset of the Ghuzz Turks from Central Asia).

Rise of the Seljuks

The Ghuzz Turks converted to Islam in the tenth century and became increasingly involved in the struggles between the Ghaznavid and Qarakhanid empires in Central Asia. This conflict helped give birth to the Seljuk state.

During the wars between the Ghaznavids and Qarakhanids, the Seljuks and other Ghuzz Turks were displaced. One branch moved into Khurasan, where Mahmud of Ghazni kept them on a short leash. Toghril Beg and his brother Chaghri led the rest of the Seljuks to Khwarazm, south of the Aral Sea, in 1034. However, they were eventually forced to flee to Khurasan due to increasing pressure from other Ghuzz tribes in 1035–1036.

In 1037, the Seljuks were able to take over the towns of Merv, Nishapur, and Herat. These were all vassals of the Ghaznavids, now ruled by sultan Masud. Masud attempted to bring the Seljuks to heel in 1040, but he was crushed at the Battle of Dandanqan. After this, the Persian territory of the Ghaznavids was lost forever to the Seljuks.

Westward Expansion

With the defeat of the Ghaznavids, the Seljuks were now a major power in the region. Following steppe custom, Toghril and his brother divided the realm between themselves to rule, although in theory it remained a single state. Toghril’s portion of the empire was the western regions.

With no major powers to oppose him, Toghril quickly acquired more territory. Much of Persia or modern Iran submitted to his authority, although taking cities through sieges remained difficult as the Seljuks had little experience in these matters. (Their most effective tactic was to blockade a city.) Toghril’s troops also began to raid into Transcaucasia (modern Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia). This eventually paid off as he gained the homage of many of the local lords by 1054.

Toghril gained new influence in 1055 when he took over Baghdad. The Buyids (932), an Iranian Shi’a dynasty, controlled much of western Persia as well as Baghdad. The Abbasid caliph was still the titular lord of the region, but in reality the caliphs held power in name only.

In 1054, Toghril received an invitation from Caliph al-Qaim to liberate Baghdad from the Buyids. Toghril accepted the invitation and moved against the Buyids, deposing them in 1055. This victory was aided by dissent against Buyid rule in Baghdad and the fact that the Buyids, whose army was primarily infantry, could not resist the Seljuk horse archers.

Toghril the Sultan

Once Baghdad was liberated, Toghril received the title of sultan. He was honored by the caliph and recognized as the caliph’s deputy. Despite his power and titles, not everyone was happy with Toghril’s power. In 1059, his cousin Ibrahim ibn Inal rebelled, in collusion with the commander of the caliph’s army, a person named Besairi. While Toghril dealt with his cousin, Besairi occupied Baghdad and removed the caliph from power.

Toghril dealt with each of his attackers in turn. Ibrahim ibn Inal met Toghril in Battle at Rai (near modern Teheran). Toghril emerged victorious and executed his cousin. He then marched against Baghdad, defeating the Abbasid general before the walls of the city. In early 1060, Toghril brought the caliph back to Baghdad.

Now, things had substantially changed. Although the caliph had sought to make the Seljuk leader his subordinate and military muscle, the caliph was clearly at the mercy of Toghril. In the eyes of the people, Toghril saved Sunni Islam and restored the caliphate; in reality, the caliph was once again a puppet of a greater power.

In the course of his life, Toghril went from being a refugee to the leader of a great empire. He successfully held off threats to his power from internal and external forces. Furthermore, as his tribe were fairly recent converts, his role as the champion of Islam gave Toghril further legitimacy as a ruler.

Alp Arslan

Alp Arslan (“Lion Hero” in Turkic) (1029–1072) was the great-grandson of Seljuk, the chieftain of the Ghuzz Turkic tribes that migrated from Central Asia into Iran in the eleventh century. A product of that migration, Arslan was born in the Persian province of Khurasan and became the second Seljuk sultan.

Path to Ascension

Alp Arslan was the nephew of the Seljuk sultan Toghril Beg and the son of Chaghri Beg. He began his career as a lieutenant for his father, who commanded the Seljuk armies in Khurasan. When Chaghri died (sometime in 1059 or 1060), Alp Arslan stepped into his father’s position. For the next three years, he was a loyal general for his uncle Toghril. However, when Toghril died in 1063, Alp Arslan ascended the throne. Not unexpectedly, his claim to the throne was challenged, but against all rivals—such as his cousin Suleiman and his father’s cousin, Kutulmish—Alp Arslan emerged victorious.

Alp Arslan’s reign was pivotal to the Seljuks, as he actively encouraged the move from a nomadic kingdom to a more sedentary existence. He also increased the authority of the government over the frequently autonomous Turkic tribes. Resentment to this played a role in the rebellions. However, Alp Arslan found outlets for the tribe’s frustration by directing them against neighboring Christian states as well as the (Shi’a Muslim) Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and Syria

Empire Building

When not suppressing family rebellions, Alp Arslan attempted to expand the Seljuk Sultanate. In 1064 and 1068, his armies invaded the Christian regions of Georgia and Armenia. While he did not conquer them, he did force their rulers to recognize Seljuk suzerainty and pay tribute. Then in 1065 he crossed the Amu Darya and brought the region known as Mawarannahr (the territory between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers) under his authority. Five years later, Alp Arslan began to extend Seljuk dominion into Syria, capturing the city of Aleppo in 1070. Henceforth, Syria was dominated by the Seljuks, while the Fatimids generally controlled the coastline of the Levant.

Now in Syria, Alp Arslan was in a position to rival the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, as new Turkic nomads entered his domains, Alp Arslan sent them to the Byzantine border. There they could raid the Byzantines while not causing trouble in his own domains.

Naturally, this provoked a Byzantine reaction and in 1071, Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes invaded Seljuk territory. Alp Arslan met him in battle and crushed the Byzantines at Manzikert on August 26, 1071.This victory was the pinnacle of Alp Arslan’s career as it opened Anatolia (modern Turkey) to Seljuk conquest. However, it would be decades before Seljuk authority dominated the region, as Alp Arslan did not take immediate advantage of the power vacuum.

The campaign against the Byzantines was not Alp Arslan’s last venture. In 1072, he was once again in Central Asia campaigning. While interviewing a captive commander, he was stabbed. While he did not die immediately, Alp Arslan finally succumbed on November 24, 1072, and was succeeded by his son, Malik Shah.

Although Alp Arslan is considered one of the greatest of the Seljuk sultans, his primary focus was on military affairs. The actual running of the empire was handled by his vizier, or prime minister, Nizam al-Mulk, a Persian. Nizam al-Mulk’s involvement was crucial; he provided stability for the state not only in government but by creating military fiefs. This meant that Alp Arslan’s troops had financial support and could severely limit their pillaging of the populace.

Muhammad of Ghur

Muizz al-Din Muhammad (c. 1160–1206), known more popularly as Muhammad of Ghur, raised the Ghurid Empire—based in the city of Ghur, located in modern Afghanistan—to its pinnacle. Muhammad accomplished this with the help of his elder brother, Ghiyath al-Din.

An Island in a Ghaznavid Sea

The Ghurid Sultans came from the Shansab family who, according to legend, were converted to Islam by Caliph Ali, who invested them with the authority to rule the region of Ghur. Ghur was notable for not being part of the larger Ghaznavid Empire around it. Mahmud of Ghazni led three campaigns against Ghur, but never successfully conquered the region. The area around Ghur finally became a vassal as various chieftains jockeying for power sought Ghaznavid support.

After the Seljuk’s victory at Dandanqan in 1040 over the Ghaznavids, the situation altered. Bereft of their Persian domains, the Ghaznavid’s power waned while the Ghurids became more active. In 1150, the Suri tribe from Ghur sacked Ghazni. Later, the Ghaznavids were forced to abandon Afghanistan and take residence in the city of Lahore, in modern Pakistan.

With the Ghaznavids now in Lahore, Muhammad and Ghiyath al-Din dominated Afghanistan. The two amiably divided their realm between them with Ghiyath al-Din ruling from Ghur northward, while Muhammad ruled from Ghazni to India.

Assisted by their equally capable brother Shihab al-Din Muhammad, the brothers competed with the nascent state of Khwarazm for dominance in the eastern Islamic world. With the collapse of the Seljuk state in the mid-twelfth century, Khwarazm and Ghur, both former Seljuk vassals, were in excellent position to replace it.

The Ghurids Grow

Early on, the brothers expanded their realm into Khurasan and eastern Persia. Meanwhile, Muhammad also carried on the ghazi tradition began by the Ghaznavids in northern India. While doing so, the brothers earned the appreciation of the Abbasid caliphs, who were nervous about the Khwarazm’s westward expansion toward Baghdad.

Although Muhammad participated in some of the battles, his elder brother Ghiyath al-Din primarily fought the Khwarazmians. Clashes with the Khwarazmians began over possession of the city of Heart in western Afghanistan. Not only did Ghiyath al-Din defeat the Khwarazmian prince Sultan Shah in 1190, but he then overran most of Khurasan. In 1198, the city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan also came into Ghurid possession.

That same year war arose between Ghur and Khwarazm and Kara Kitai. (This latter central Asian polity was founded by Kitans, members of the Liao Dynasty of northern China.) Urged on by Caliph al-Nasir, the Ghurids defeated the Kara Kitans at Guzgan and then Sultan Tekish of Khwarazm at Herat in decisive battles. Ghiyath al-Din followed up his victories by overrunning the rest of Khurasan in 1200, after the death of Sultan Tekish. Ghiyath al-Din died in 1203, leaving his brother Muhammad the sole ruler of the realm.

Campaigns on the Subcontinent

While Ghiyath al-Din had been occupied with the Khwarazmians, Muhammad campaigned in India. In 1186, he invaded the Punjab and captured Lahore, thus ending the Ghaznavid dynasty. Afterwards his domain bordered that of Prithviraj III, ruler of a powerful Hindu state. Muhammad and Prithviraj fought twice. In the first battle in 1191, Muhammad was captured but released. In the second, Muhammad finally vanquished him in 1192.

With the victory at Tarain, the North India plain was now open to Ghurid forces. Thus from 1193 to 1203, Muhammad focused most of his attention on expanding into the Ganges River basin. Here he was viewed as a ghazi, as he fought various Hindu kings.

In 1204, Muhammad had to focus his attention back in Afghanistan. Sultan Ala al-Din Muhammad II had consolidated his position in Khwarazm after succeeding his father, Tekish. He now sought revenge against the Ghurids. The two Muhammads first clashed in 1204 with Muhammad of Ghur as the victor. Muhammad then began to plunder the region of Khwarazm. This forced Muhammad Khwarazm to appeal to his suzerains, the Kara Kitans, for aid.

The two Muhammads met again in battle at Hezarasp. With the Kara Kitan reinforcements, Muhammad of Khwarazm won this round. Kara Kitan forces forced the Ghurids out of Khwarazm and then defeated Muhammad of Ghur again at Andkhoi, near Balkh. These defeats were the undoing for the Ghurids.

The Ghurids Wither

Although Muhammad of Ghur successfully resisted further Khwarazmian expansion, he was assassinated in the Punjab while putting down an insurrection in 1206. Unfortunately, his successors could not withstand Muhammad of Khwarazm who seized Ghur and Herat immediately after Muhammad’s death in 1206. The conquest of Ghurid territory in Afghanistan was complete in 1215.

The Ghurids, however, held onto their Indian territory. It was later absorbed into the Delhi Sultanate, founded by one of Muhammad of Ghur’s mamluks.

Prithviraj III

Prithviraj III (1168–1192) came to the throne of the Chauhan dynasty as a child. Although he became the greatest ruler of that family, it was also during his reign that his powerful Hindu state was overrun by Muslim invaders from Afghanistan.

The Boy Grabs the Reins of Power

After ascending the throne at his capital of Ajmer in 1178, Prithviraj set about consolidating his realm. Several rebellions broke out as recalcitrant rulers viewed the rule of the young king as an opportune time to assert their independence. Relying on the advice of his generals, Prithviraj successfully quelled the revolts.

At the same time he was quelling the rebellions, Prithviraj became concerned about the rise of the Ghurid dynasty in Afghanistan. Beginning in 1178, the Ghurids under Muhammad of Ghur were increasingly active in the subcontinent. In response, Prithviraj began fortifying his frontier against them.

The Muslim threat and rebellions were not Prithviraj’s only concern. One of his goals was to increase the lands held by the Chauhan dynasty in northern India. Thus he also had to deal with other Indian rajputs (princely rulers), such as the Chalukyas of Gujarat and the Chandellas of Jejakbhukti.

His efforts against other Indian rulers came to an end, however, when Muhammad of Ghur commenced an invasion by attacking the Chauhan frontier fortresses. Prithviraj’s army met the Ghurid forces at Tarain in 1191. Not only did he defeat the Ghurid forces, but Muhammad became Prithviraj’s prisoner.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Prithviraj was a remarkable leader who was known not only for his valor, but also his honorable actions. He released Muhammad on the condition of peace. Thinking that the Ghurid threat had passed, Prithviraj resumed his wars against other Hindu princes in an unsuccessful campaign against King Jayachandra of Kanauj.

However, Prithviraj’s trust in the Ghurids was misplaced. The unsuccessful campaign against Jayachandra opened the door for the Ghurids, who took advantage of Prithviraj’s weakness and invaded. At the second Battle of Tarain in 1192, Muhammad prevailed and took Prithviraj prisoner. Unlike his rival, Muhammad did not release his prisoner; instead, he imprisoned him in the fortress of Ghazni, where he died in 1192.

Popular legend has Muhammad blinding Prithviraj and keeping the Indian king as a source of amusement for his court. In this tale, Prithviraj eventually gains his revenge by participating in an archery contest despite his blindness. With his blindness, the prisoner’s hearing had improved. Listening for Muhammad’s voice, Prithviraj ultimately shoots and kills his tormentor. In reality, however, Muhammad did not die until 1206, long after his armies overran and absorbed Prithviraj’s realm into the Ghurid Empire.

Major Battles

Yarmuk, August 20, 636

The Battle of Yarmuk was a key turning point in the war between the Arabs and the Byzantines for control of Syria. By 635, the Muslim armies had conquered virtually all of Palestine and what is today Jordan, driving the Byzantine armies before them. The final confrontation for the fate of Syria occurred at a river in northern Jordan that flows through the Golan Heights and into Jordan River.

Impasse at the Pass

In response to the Arab victories, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius mustered a new army comprised of Byzantine regulars, Armenian infantry, and light Arab cavalry. (The horsemen were from the Bani Ghassani, a client state of the Byzantines.) This army was led by the general Theodorus. The Arab forces in Syria led by Khalid ibn al-Walid withdrew.

As Theodorus’s force marched, the Arabs in Syria (led by Khalid ibn al-Walid) abandoned that polity and withdrew through the Deraa pass in the Golan Heights. It is possible that Khalid hoped that Theodorus would follow them into the open. However, the Byzantine general did not comply. Instead, the Byzantines decided to hold the pass, as it was the most strategic entrance into Syria.

Upon realizing this, Khalid stopped his retreat and laid siege to the Byzantine’s fortified positions near the Yarmuk River. While the pass was ideal for an army, many rifts and other passes existed, thus allowing raiding parties to infiltrate Syria and pillage.

The siege lasted for four months. The Arabs made few direct attacks on the Byzantine position, preferring to simply raid and fight the occasional skirmish. In the meantime, strains between the multi-ethnic components of the Byzantine army began to show. Meanwhile, the Arabs continued to wait.

An Arab Storm

Small parties of horsemen had routinely entered Syria behind Byzantine lines. While initially they had just raided, over time they also cut Byzantine routes of communication by seizing the bridge that crossed the Yarmuk River.

The attack came rather unexpectedly in the middle of a sand storm. (Some scholars dispute this, believing it to be an excuse for the loss created by Byzantine writers after the fact.) On August 20, the main Arab force rushed the Byzantine fortifications during the sand storm. The Byzantines, already with low morale and desertions, panicked during the surprise attack and broke. The Arabs pursued and annihilated many during the retreat. Several accounts of the battle mention that many of the Byzantines were killed from falling into the ravines of the Golan Heights and into the river.

Regardless of whether or not the sand storm played a role in the battle, the end result was the same. The battle was decisive, and the large Byzantine army had been decimated. With its annihilation, Syria was open to conquest, and resistance collapsed before the Arab advance.

With no or little threat to them, the Arab forces split and quickly dominated Syria, with an occasional encounter with a garrison. Syria, however, was lost to the Byzantines. Indeed, once Heraclius realized the magnitude of the defeat, he did not attempt to regain it.

Qadisiyya, 637

The Battle of Qadisiyya in 637 opened the Persian Sasanid Empire to the Arab armies. Although Muslim forces had made good progress against the Sasanids, Rustem—the Sasanid general in charge—successfully pushed them back into the Arabian Desert. This led to an escalation of conflict as new Arab armies marched northeast toward modern Iraq.

Opposing Sides Muster

The new Arab army was led by Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, a veteran of many battles and a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. In the autumn of 636, Saad set out from Medina with four thousand men. This force was bolstered by new contingents from Medina periodically, as Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab sent new troops as they gathered. While the Arab forces mustered, Saad spent three months in northeastern Arabia training his men.

In December 636 or January 647, Saad began his advance toward the Euphrates River. It is estimated that by the time that Saad made his push, he had accumulated thirty thousand men, including a solid core of veterans who had fought alongside Muhammad.

Meanwhile, the Persians knew that the Arabs would be back, so Rustem, the Sasanid general, gathered his army as well. The exact number of this force is unknown except that it was larger than the Arab army. In addition, he possessed thirty-three elephants.

Rustem’s plan was to hold the east bank of the Euphrates, forcing the Arabs to come to him and into the cultivated lands of the empire, where all of the advantages were to the benefit of the Persians. Meanwhile, Saad hoped to keep the desert to his back, thus making retreat easy, as the Persians could not follow them far into the desert sands.

Both generals knew the proper way for their armies to fight, but what would draw the other out?

A Headstrong King

The key was the Sasanid king, Yazdegerd, who had only recently come to the throne. Young and ambitious, Yazdegerd ignored the advice of Rustem and ordered him to take the battle to the Arabs. Rustem obliged, but reluctantly. Meanwhile, Arab raiders began marauding along the western bank of the Euphrates.

In the spring of 637, the armies met in battle. Saad drew his army up in the plain of Qadisiyya. The Arab general did not actively fight in the ranks. Instead, he remained in a building near the field due to illness. However, the building was positioned where he could see the battle and send messages to his commanders.

His right flank was protected by marshes, and the desert was to his rear. Meanwhile, the Sasanid army crossed the Euphrates, which in that particular area was divided into small streams, and then formed their ranks before the Arabs.

The Persians initiated combat by advancing and apparently ignoring various Arab heroes who sought personal combat. As the Sasanids advanced, the elephants emerged with archers in their howdahs, (towers mounted on their backs). The elephants broke the ranks of several tribal units, both the Bani Bajeela and Bani Asad. Although the latter fought bravely, they suffered heavy casualties. However, other Arab units stood fast with their archers focusing on the men in the howdahs while swordsmen tried to either gut the elephants or to cut the girths of the howdahs, causing them to fall off.

Through these methods, the elephant threat was nullified. As darkness fell, the Arab army had survived the first day of the battle, although it came close to collapsing.

The Arabs Get Reinforced

The second day of battle began with both sides removing the dead from the battle field under a truce. Not until the afternoon did the armies resume combat. The Arabs also received reinforcements from Syria. These were veterans of campaigns against both the Sasanids and the Byzantines—these were the men that Khalid had led across the Syrian desert to fight in Syria a few years earlier. Caliph Umar had recalled them for the new campaign against the Sasanids. Even though Khalid was not with them, the arrival of their vanguard revived the morale of the Arabs. This time the Arabs were more aggressive and charged the enemy quite often. Nonetheless, by the end of the second day of battle, the Persians still held firm.

On the third day of battle, the main body of reinforcements from Syria arrived. This helped to offset the demoralizing reappearance of the Sasanid elephant corps. This time, the Arabs tried new tactics. Rather than attempting to fight them on horseback, Qaqaa, the leader of the Syrian troops, engaged them with lances while on foot. Although his men suffered high casualties, they blinded several elephants, causing them to stampede. Although the stampede trampled troops on both sides, eventually the elephants exited the battlefield. After the beasts had left, the fighting resumed and continued until nightfall.

The Final Day

Although there was a lull in the fighting, the Bedouin began to make night attacks on the Sasanid lines. Thus when dawn arrived, the fighting continued throughout the day. As dusk approached, the Arabs made a final charge. The Persian center collapsed and the Arabs reached Rustem, whom they slew. Although some Sasanid troops held their ground, the majority of the army fled. Those who stayed were killed to the last man.

The Arabs do not appear to have pursued those who fled, perhaps due to the last contingent who fought. However, they had suffered approximately twenty-five percent casualties, high by any standard, so it is not too surprising. Furthermore, the riches found in the enemy camp were attractive to all warriors.

Although the Arabs did not pursue the Sasanids, the battle of Qadisiyya opened the Sasanid Empire to them. The morale and core of the Sasanid army had been devastated at Qadisiyya, and the loss of Rustem was a mortal blow. The young king Yazdegerd lacked the experience necessary to rally his military. After Qadisiyya, the Arabs would cross the Euphrates and conquer the rest of the Sasanid Empire—which stretched from the Euphrates to modern Afghanistan—in a few years.

Constantinople, Seventh and Eight Centuries

During the period of Islamic expansion, there were several sieges of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. During the period of the Umayyad Empire (656–750), three sieges were attempted. The sieges not only demonstrated the military power of the Umayyads, but also the great defenses, determination, and vibrancy of the Byzantine Empire.

Take Constantinople: Take One

The first Muslim assault on the environs of Constantinople began sometime between 670 and 672. The sources are murky on when the siege initiated; nonetheless, during this period the Umayyad navy seized several coastal towns in Anatolia (modern Turkey), including the town of Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara.

The actual siege began in 674. With the provinces of Syria and Egypt lost to the Muslims, and heavy raiding and invasions in eastern Anatolia, it appeared that the Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse.

Most of the fighting took place in the summers when troops were available for a fighting season, although the Arabs kept troops in the vicinity for five years. Because of manpower issues as well as the superb walls and defenses of the city, it eventually became apparent to the Umayyad forces that they could not penetrate the walls. Their siege engines and catapults could not break through. Furthermore, the Arab attackers both on land and at sea had no answer for the Byzantine’s secret weapon: Greek fire, a substance similar to napalm.

In 678, the Arabs abandoned their siege. Afterwards, the bulk of the Arab fleet was destroyed in a storm, so the siege was not renewed for some time.

Take Constantinople: Take Two

The more spectacular siege of Constantinople was the second attack by the Umayyads. Despite the efforts of Muawiya, who ordered the first one, the attack by Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik made the more determined effort. The Umayyads also choose their timing quite well.

In 715, Constantinople had been sacked by Bulgars, and then for the next two years, it was wracked by two civil wars. Thus it was weak from not only internal foment, but wars with the Bulgars and the Muslims. To the Umayyad court, the Byzantine Empire seemed particularly weak and Constantinople’s famous defenses vulnerable. Indeed, even as Caliph Sulayman and his brother Maslamah (who would lead the attack) gathered their forces, another violent coup struck the Byzantine Empire.

With the internecine wars within the capital, it seemed that the Umayyads would succeed. However, the coup brought Emperor Leo III to the throne. Leo was not just royalty, but also a talented general who had considerable experience at fighting the Arab armies from his service in Anatolia.

Maslamah led the Umayyad army and fleet to Constantinople and began the siege in July 717. However, as his army began their encirclement of the city, they suddenly found themselves without naval support. Leo had waited until the Arab ships came into narrow confines and then attacked with every Byzantine ship available and from all of the harbors, striking the Muslims from multiple points.

The situation did not improve for the besieging land troops when Bulgarian raiders struck the Muslim camp. To make matters worse, Leo also improved the walls of the city, and one of the worst winters in Byzantine history occurred that year. The besieging army dwindled from disease and casualties. One such victim was Caliph Sulayman, who died while campaigning in Anatolia.

Take Constantinople: Take Three

In 718, it appeared that the Arabs would have better fortunes. Another Umayyad fleet arrived from Egypt. It seemed that they would be able to blockade the city. However, the Coptic Christian sailors who manned the fleet mutinied, thereby denying the Umayyad army naval assistance yet again.

Additional help did not arrive from Syria either. Originally, Arab troops were to cross Anatolia to reinforce the besiegers. Byzantine troops stationed in Anatolia, however, defeated them and forced them into Syria.

Nonetheless, the Muslims continued their siege despite the hardships. Yet the situation only grew worse as inclement weather continued and epidemics broke out. Then, as if acting as the final straw to break the camel’s back, the volcano near the port of Thera erupted, pummeling the besiegers with waves.

The new Caliph, Umar II, realized the folly of continuing the siege and ordered the army to withdraw. Leo emerged as the victor and brought the Byzantine Empire back from its deathbed to a resurgence of power. For the Umayyads, the resounding defeat and series of natural disasters eroded the confidence of many of its subjects. While not a direct reason for their downfall in 750, the defeat at Constantinople clearly demonstrated that all was not well within the empire.

Covadonga, 722

The Battle of Covadonga (from the Latin Cova Dominica or “Cavern of the Lady”) is an example of a minor incident that gains more importance through the process of history and memory. In Spain, the Battle of Covadonga is remembered as the “cradle of the Reconquest” and the beginning of the recovery of Spain from the Moors (as the Muslims of Spain were known), who had conquered Spain in 711. In reality, however, historians believe that the Battle of Covadonga was little more that a small encounter between Asturian warriors in northern Spain and a small Moorish army.

A Good Story, But Not a Truthful One

According to the Spanish chronicles, Don Pelayo—a nobleman from the mountains of Asturias in northern Spain—and his small band of supporters were forced into a cave on Mount Auseva by a Moorish army numbering around 200,000 men. Don Pelayo and his men prayed to the Virgin Mary for protection and then came out to fight the Muslims.

Despite being vastly outnumbered, Don Pelayo not only won, but did so through divine agency. The arrows and spears of the Muslims bounced off the mountain and killed most of the Moors. Then, the Cross of Victory appeared in the Heavens above Don Pelayo and gave them hope. More divine intervention occurred as an avalanche of rocks crushed the remaining sixty thousand Moors. After the victory, the warriors made Don Pelayo their king.

The problem with this is that the Moors never assembled an army of this size at any point in their seven hundred years in Spain, even at the peak of their power. It is questionable if they ever had more than one hundred thousand soldiers at any given point in the entire kingdom. (When reading any chronicle, unusually large numbers typically means “They had a lot more soldiers than we had.”)

Not as Exciting, But Closer to the Truth

The reality of the battle is that Don Pelayo did begin an insurrection against the Moors, quite possibly because the Umayyad governor of Spain, Anbasa ibn Suhaym al-Kalbi, had doubled taxes for non-Muslims. With a band of guerillas, Don Pelayo attacked Muslim outposts and refused to pay tribute to the Moors.

Naturally, the Umayyad governor in Spain could not tolerate such actions and responded by reinforcing his garrison there. However, viewed through Moorish eyes, Don Pelayo’s actions were not a serious threat to Muslim power. Don Pelayo could not expel the Muslims, but then, the Moors could not stop his insurgency either, especially as their primary focus was elsewhere in France. Thus with few available troops, the Muslims had to tolerate their inability to end the Asturian’s actions.

However, after the Moorish defeat at Toulouse in 721, governor Anbasa felt a victory was needed to restore his army’s morale; crushing a minor rebellion would provide the necessary tonic. The general Al-Kama (or Alqama) led a force into the region, but Don Pelayo fled to the mountains and successfully defeated his pursuers. Al-Kama was killed in the battle.

Pelayo’s successful defense led to a general insurrection among the populace, which successfully drove the Muslims from the region. Another Moorish expedition also failed to quell the uprising; thereafter, Asturias remained an independent kingdom.

Covadonga as Propaganda

The significance of the battle has little to do with history. Christian Spanish chroniclers—both royal and monastic writers, writing two hundred years after the battle occurred—transformed the battle into an epic encounter complete with a victory showing God’s favor. This retelling gave legitimacy to the Asturian monarchy as well as a historic marker to the expulsion of the Moors. Placing the birth of the monarchy at this battle also removed the stigma of the collapse of the Visigothic kingdoms with the Arab conquest in 711.

Regardless of the mythology, the Battle of Covadonga was a victory for the Spaniards and placed the monarchy in a more heroic setting, whereas the scenes of divine intervention legitimized the rulers and their efforts against the Muslims in the eyes of the people. The actual battle was a small affair, but it mobilized the population against the Moors, and an occupation will not succeed if the populace is against it.

Poitiers (Tours), October 732

In this conflict, Frankish leader Charles Martel met a Muslim army led by Abd al-Rahman I somewhere between Tours and Poitiers. The defeat of the Muslim army marked an end to significant threats of continuing Arab expansion northward into Europe.

Arab Treasure Seekers

The Muslim army was not one of conquest, but rather a raiding party. With the defeat of the nobility of southern France in 732, Muslim raiders had drifted further north seeking more plunder. Charles Martel, the Frankish mayor of the palace of the Merovingian dynasty, moved to counter these actions.

Charles Martel marched quickly and often off the road, thus arriving ahead of the Muslims. This allowed him to select the terrain to his benefit. As the two forces met, the first seven days were spent skirmishing while maneuvering for position. Charles had arranged his men in a square. His position was good as trees and a hill hindered the Muslim cavalry. While the armies made their feints, additional Frankish infantry arrived, ranging from militias to veterans of previous campaigns.

Ultimately, Abd al-Rahman made the first move, probably because as long as Charles remained in the area, the Arab raiding expedition was threatened. The Muslim cavalry charged, but the Frankish heavy infantry did not break.

Throughout the day, the Muslim cavalry charged, but could not break the disciplined Frankish infantry. However, the Franks lacked sufficient cavalry to pursue the Muslim cavalry. This meant any advantage gained was lost, and it allowed Abd al-Rahman to regroup.

Frankish Treasure Seekers

The real shift in the battle occurred behind the lines of battle. Frankish scouts had circled behind the Muslim lines and began to pillage their camp, rich with goods from previous raids. This caused some units from the Umayyad forces to withdraw to defend the camp. Because of communication issues, other units began to withdraw as well, and everything almost turned into a general retreat. Abd al-Rahman tried to rally his troops, but in the course of doing so, he became surrounded and was killed.

As night fell, both sides retired to their camps. When the Franks prepared for battle on the following morning, they discovered the Muslim camp empty; they had retreated under the cover of darkness.

Although the Battle of Poitiers was not a resounding victory, it still was significant for Charles. Muslim raiding parties continued for a few years, but any advance into northern France was checked. The victory also helped Charles secure and consolidate his power. Over time, the legend of the battle (a victory over the “infidel”) helped give legitimacy to Charles’s reign as well as that of his successors.

Although the Frankish victory was important, it was not quite the epic victory that some historians have made it out to be. If the Muslims had won, Arabic would not have become the language of Oxford as Edward Gibbons (the famous eighteenth-century historian) surmised, and Europe would not have become an appendage of the Muslim world. However, Charles Martel’s victory did help him secure power within France. Furthermore, it deterred other raiding parties, as the Arabs learned that fighting the Franks was not an easy proposition.

Talas, July 751

The Battle of Talas, fought between the Arab armies of the Abbasid caliphate and the Tang Empire of China, gave the Muslims mastery of Central Asia. The pivotal battle enabled the Islamic penetration of the region, and it gave the Muslims control of an economically important trade zone: the heart of the Silk Road.

Growing Empires Collide

The Tang desired the region not only because of the trade opportunities, but also to protect the western regions of their empire from the Turks and the nascent Tibetan Empire. However, the Arab expansion also began to reach out into Central Asia, conquering the Sasanid Empire between 637 and 652. Afterwards, the Muslims did not attempt to cross the Amu Darya river, except for occasional raids, while they assimilated the newly conquered territories.

During the next century however, skirmishing became more frequent. Most of the fights, however, took place between proxies of both empires as they tried to avoid conflict that might escalate into a full-fledged war.

Nonetheless, events did lead to war. With the expansion of the Tibetan empire, the Tang became more active in Central Asia to prevent it from succumbing to the Tibetans. The Tang general, Gao Xianzhi, led several expeditions. Although the war with Tibet (750–751) was a costly one far from the core of the Tang Empire, the Tang emerged victorious. Now, Gao Xianzhi turned his attention toward the Turks.

Turks had slowly migrated into the region since the seventh century. For the most part however, there was not a unified state or confederation, but rather individuals ruling commercial towns by the oases. Gao Xianzhi seized the city of Tashkent and then executed the Turkic ruler. The ruler’s son fled and submitted to the Arabs. In return for his submission, Ziyad ibn Salih led the Abbasid forces in the region to meet the Tang army.

Little Known Except for the Outcome

Unfortunately, the details of the battle are very vague, as sources vary widely on even the number of troops involved. Nonetheless, all agree on the end result after reportedly five days of battle: Gao Xianzhi and his army were crushed by the Arabs. The Arabs were aided when the Qarluq Turks, who served as auxiliary troops for the Tang, switched sides. Although defeated, Gao Xianzhi was able to extricate himself and the remnants of his army from Talas.

Although the Tang maintained their garrisons in modern Xinjiang for some years, the region remained independent of Chinese rule until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Although Manchu—not Chinese—in origin, the Qing Empire was based and ruled from China.

Roncesvalles, August 778

The Battle of Roncesvalles was a resounding setback for the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814. The battle, part of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims of Spain, did not actually include Charlemagne. Instead, the conflict at Roncesvalles was a battle between the Franks and the Basque.

Charlemagne Heads South

In 778, Charlemagne invaded Spain, hoping to bring the emirate of Saragossa under his control. Along the way, the Frankish king captured the Christian city of Pamplona, which was part of the emirate of Saragossa. Previously, Charlemagne had entered into discussions with representatives of Saragossa toward a peaceful transition in exchange for protection against the emirate of Cordoba.

However, when Charlemagne arrived, the situation had changed. Cordoba had attempted to subdue Saragossa, but forces led by the governor of Saragossa, Husayn ibn Yahya al-Ansari, emerged victorious. Emboldened by this victory, al-Ansari no longer felt the need for Charlemagne’s protection. Therefore, when Charlemagne arrived, al-Ansari had no intention of becoming a subordinate of the Frankish ruler.

It is not clear if Charlemagne besieged the city or only conducted negotiations. In any case, Charlemagne did not stay long at Saragossa; he had received news of trouble on his border along the Rhine River. With the Saxons in revolt, Charlemagne needed to return north, so he left without gaining the city.

As they retreated through the territory of the Basques, the Franks were ambushed by a Muslim force near Pamplona. This was defeated, and Charlemagne then razed the walls of Pamplona, a Basque city under Muslim rule.

A Clear Outcome for Murkier Reasons

The Basques attacked the Franks at the village of Roncesvalles in August 778. Their reasons for doing so are not fully understood. Perhaps it was because of the sacking of Pamplona, or perhaps the simple opportunity to plunder. Nonetheless, the Basques ambushed the Frankish army as it crossed the mountains.

Although the Franks had the most powerful army in Western Europe, the Basques were renowned mountain warriors fighting in familiar terrain. In addition, they struck in the early evening and from ambush, two more advantageous factors. As a result, the Franks suffered heavy casualties in what may have been a running fight, with the Franks essentially running a gauntlet.

One of the Frankish dead was Hroudland, lord of Breton. He is also known as Roland of the epic poem The Song of Roland. This battle became the basis of the epic poem, but with the Basques being transformed into Muslims to fit the beginning of the Crusading era.

Dandanqan, May 23, 1040

The Battle of Dandanqan was a pivotal battle for dominance in the eastern part of the Islamic world, pitting the newly arrived Seljuks against the established Ghaznavid Empire. The winner, the Seljuks, became the dominant power in Iran, while the Ghaznavids became a peripheral state.

Immigration Troubles

Since 1031, Masud, the son of Mahmud the Great, ruled the Ghaznavid Empire, which stretched from the Amu Darya river to the Indus River valley. In the northwestern regions of his empire, Masud had to deal with the arrival of the Seljuks, nomads who crossed the Amu Darya in the early eleventh century during Mahmud’s reign.

Mahmud had kept them in check. During the 1030s, however, the Seljuks and other Ghuzz Turks began to enter the empire in increasing numbers and threatened to overrun the regions of Khurasan (today part of Iran and Afghanistan) and Khwarazm (the region south of the Aral Sea).

It is possible that the matter could have been resolved peacefully; the Seljuk leader, Toghril Beg, did request land in Khurasan from Masud. Masud, however, refused the request. As a result, Toghril seized the city of Nishapur in 1038. Forced to deal with this growing menace to his realm, Masud led his army from Afghanistan toward the city of Merv.

Although the capture of Nishapur was a bold action, Toghril Beg also courted disaster in doing so. By drawing the wrath of the powerful Ghaznavid army, he also risked the destruction of his tribe. Knowing that Masud preferred battle to diplomacy, Toghril knew he had to avoid fighting Masud on his terms.

Skirmishes Before the Main Event

On the march, Masud’s forces were constantly harassed by attacks from the Seljuks. This not only undermined the morale and discipline of Masud’s army, but also prevented Masud from procuring adequate supplies of food and, more importantly, water.

Eventually, the reportedly fifty-thousand-man Ghaznavid army met a smaller (twenty thousand), but more mobile force of Seljuks—under the leadership of Toghril Beg and his brother, Chaghri—on the steppe of Dandanqan, near Merv. Tired from the long march and dehydrated on the arid steppe, the Ghaznavid forces were defeated. Sultan Masud barely escaped the disastrous encounter with a hundred men. Masud was unable to recover Khurasan from the Seljuks. Indeed, this may have cost him the throne, for while marching into India, he was assassinated.

For the Seljuks, the victory at Dandanqan gave them complete control of Khurasan and eastern Iran. From this victory, the Seljuks then went on to dominate all of Iran; being recent converts to Islam, they became allies of the Abbasid caliphs. Dandanqan was the crucible in which the Seljuk Empire was forged.

Manzikert, August 1071

A resounding defeat of the Byzantine Empire by Seljuk Turks under the leadership of Alp Arslan, the Battle of Manzikert helped solidify the presence of Islam (and the Turks) in Anatolia.

From Nomads to Farmers

As the Seljuk Empire expanded westward, its main efforts were partially fueled by recently arrived Turkic nomads. By the reign of Alp Arslan (who ruled from 1063 to 1072), the Seljuks had largely settled down, becoming sedentary rather than remaining nomads. The army had received military land grants that produced a form of salary. The idea was that if these soldiers received a regular payment, then they would be less likely to pillage villages and towns.

The downside of this was that more nomads entered the empire from Central Asia. To maintain stability in Persia, the Seljuks sent these nomads westward. Here they could satisfy their avarice by plundering the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, but also provide religious legitimacy for the Seljuks by serving as ghazis, or holy warriors.

Naturally, the attacks on the Byzantine frontier drew the ire of the Byzantine emperor, Romanus Diogenes IV. In addition, the Seljuks forced Armenia, a traditional client state of the Byzantines, to pay tribute to Alp Arslan. Finally, the Seljuks captured the fortresses of Akhlat and Manzikert. In response to all these belligerent actions, Romanus Diogenes led his army of approximately forty thousand men eastward.

The Byzantine army successfully recaptured Akhlat and then marched against Manzikert. During the siege, Alp Arslan’s army arrived. The Byzantines expected a normal battle between the two large armies. Having come to the throne in 1068, Diogenes had little experience in fighting the Turks, who rarely stood and fought. Instead, they used their mobility and archery to keep the Byzantines on the defensive and harass them when they advanced.

For the Byzantines, Dissension Leads to Destruction

Eventually, gaps opened in the Byzantine ranks and Romanus Diogenes had to order a withdrawal. At this point the Turks increased their pressure on the Byzantines. Romanus Diogenes then ordered the army to stand and fight. However, the commander of his rear guard, Andronicus Ducas (a rival of the emperor), ignored his orders and continued marching to the Byzantine camp. This betrayal allowed the Seljuks to surround and annihilate the main army.

Although the Byzantines had suffered defeat, the military was still strong enough to repel attacks. Unfortunately, the defeat made them vulnerable in other ways. Central Anatolia was now open to attack, and this was the core recruiting ground for the Byzantines. Furthermore, Armenia, an important source of mercenaries, was now isolated from the Byzantines. The end result was that over time, the military weakened as it lost important resources.

Seed of the Crusades

More Turks began to settle in the region, gradually leading not only to the Islamization of Anatolia, but also the Turkicization. Eventually, the Turks took Nicaea, a city only a hundred miles from Constantinople.

The desire to regain these lands also led to the Crusades as the Byzantines appealed to Pope Urban II in 1095 for aid. They had hoped for a few hundred mercenaries, but instead received thousands of knights and noncombatants, filled with religious zeal and not at all under Byzantine control.

Tarain, 1191 and 1192

Two battles took place at Tarain. (The correct spelling is Taraori, but it has entered the English language as Tarain.) Both battles involved the same participants, Muhammad of Ghur and Prithviraj III. These two conflicts ultimately determined the future of three kingdoms.

Round One

The first battle took place in 1191 as Muhammad of Ghur attempted to expand the Ghurid Empire into India. Having conquered the Punjab and destroyed the Ghaznavid dynasty that had taken refuge there, Muhammad then turned east toward the Hindu kingdoms in the plains of northern India. His first target was the fortress of Bhatinda, on the frontier of the Punjab.

As the Ghurid forces moved forward, King Prithviraj, whose kingdom was based on his capitals of Ajmer and Delhi, attempted to stop the invasion. His army encountered the Ghurids at Tarain, near the town of Thanesar.

Details of the battle are scant, but ultimately the Ghurid wings broke against the Indian charge. Muhammad still held the center, but was wounded in the battle and fell from his horse. With the collapse of the Ghurid flanks and the possible death of the ruler, the Ghurid army was routed.

Taken prisoner, Muhammad was brought before Prithviraj and humbly begged for his freedom. Prithviraj, known for his honor, did not heed the advice of his advisors and released the Muslim ruler.

The Rematch

This proved to be a mistake. Muhammad learned from his previous encounter with the Indians and invaded again in 1192, so the two rulers fought at Tarain once more. However, the Ghurids knew much more about Hindu tactics than they first did. For example, it was now known that the Hindus traditionally fought only between dawn and dusk. Furthermore, before a battle it was common for the rulers to try and settle the matter diplomatically.

Both these points would be used against the Hindus by the Ghurid leader. Prithviraj offered a truce on the condition that Muhammad withdraw his army. Muhammad deceived Prithviraj by accepting the truce. Muhammad then took advantage of Prithviraj’s honor (again) by attacking at dawn, catching the Hindus completely off guard.

Waves of horse archers struck the Rajput army. Although the Indian forces attempted to rally, the surprise attack proved devastating. The only effective Indian force was archers stationed in towers on the back of elephants. However, the Ghurid cavalry simply retreated before them, luring them away from the main army.

Eventually, Muhammad’s heavy cavalry hit the Rajput lines. Prithviraj’s army was defeated and routed. Prithviraj fought a running battle back, but was eventually captured. Muhammad, being more of a pragmatist than a man bound strictly to honor, blinded Prithviraj and imprisoned him in Ghazni rather than release him.

Aftereffects of Tarain

The two battles determined the future of three kingdoms. For Prithviraj’s kingdom, it was destroyed. The defeat at Tarain opened northern India to the Ghurids and Islamic domination. For the Ghurids, the victory not only allowed them to expand into India, but it allowed them to survive as the Khwarazmian Empire drove the Ghurids from Afghanistan in 1206 after the death of Muhammad of Ghur.

Eventually the Ghurids declined, and from its ashes emerged the Sultanate of Delhi, a new Muslim kingdom that was firmly based in India. It was established by Qutb al-Din Aybak, one of Muhammad’s generals, and lasted until 1526.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Greek Fire

One of the most effective and intriguing weapons used in the Middle Ages was Greek fire. It was developed around 673 by a Byzantine named Callinicus, an architect from Heliopolis (modern Baalbek in Syria). As Callinicus was a refugee from Syria during the Arab conquests, the creation of Greek fire appears to have been a direct response to Arab expansion and the Byzantium’s inability to stop the Arabs. The recipe for it was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the empire; indeed, there does not seem to be any evidence that the recipe ever left Byzantine hands.

Its secret was so closely guarded that even today its exact composition is still uncertain. Nonetheless, scholars have determined that it was most likely a composition of naphtha, quicklime, and sulfur. Naphtha is a product derived from distilling oil. When combined in the correct recipe, these ingredients would ignite on contact and even burn in water. Because of its petroleum base, Greek fire stuck to objects and was difficult to extinguish, much like its modern equivalent, napalm.

Greek Fire Against Wooden Ships

Greek fire was primarily used as a naval weapon, but only the imperial fleet was equipped with it on a regular basis. The provincial navies were equipped in emergencies. In combat, Greek fire was spread through a nozzle that sprayed it with a high velocity. (Scholars are not in agreement on exactly how this spraying was done.) The person who manned the apparatus was known as the siphonarios. Protected by a large iron shield, the siphonarios stood in the bow of the ship and aimed it at enemy ships. Greek fire was also used in bombs made of pottery, which functioned like hand grenades. Once thrown, these bombs would shatter and spread the Greek fire, which ignited when exposed to oxygen.

Greek fire played a vital role throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire, particularly during the time of Arab conquests. During the Umayyad sieges of Constantinople in 674–678 and 717–718, it was a critical weapon not only in defending the walls, but especially in naval battles. Indeed, its appearance at the first siege may have been the debut of Greek fire in warfare, as it was invented around 673.

Arabs would not be the only enemy to face Greek fire, as the Byzantines fended off an attack by the Russians in 941 with it. Only on one occasion—the Fourth Crusade in 1204—did it fail to thwart an attack by an outside force. Still, considering the ups and downs of the efficacy of the Byzantine navy, there were periods where Greek fire does not seem to have constituted a primary weapon for the navy. The reason for this remains unknown.

Although it was a closely guarded secret that appears to have never been revealed to outsiders, eventually other powers did gain knowledge of its manufacture. How this was done is also not known. Nonetheless, several Islamic states did begin to use a variety of Greek fire in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was used in a few naval encounters, and perhaps even sieges, during the Crusades.

Impact of the Expansion of Islam

The expansion of Islam has had a tremendous impact in world history. The most obvious being the rise of Islam from being a predominantly Arab religion into a universal world religion that has a broad appeal.

The Arab conquests and subsequent Turkic kingdoms that followed spread Islam, though not necessarily by the sword. Most converted to Islam because it was better economically, as Muslims did not have to pay a poll tax as did nonbelievers. Also, as it was the religion of the conquerors, many regional leaders thought it would be expedient and beneficial to convert. Of course, there were also many sincere conversions. While some zealous leaders attempted conversion at sword point, this was not very effective; most converts in this manner would resume their original religious practices as soon as the threat was removed.

However, the expansion of Islam also spread a civilization and culture that blended not only Arab tradition and Islamic principles, but also Roman, Hellenic, Persian, Indian, and Turkic practices into a single civilization. Someone from Cordoba, Spain, could travel to Ghazni in Afghanistan and not feel too out of place due to similar architecture, art, and practices.

Militarily, the expansion of Islam was profound. Two of the great empires of antiquity suffered greatly. The Sasanid Empire collapsed completely due to the Arab conquests. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire was greatly reduced, forever losing its Syrian and North African positions. After the Battle of Manzikert, most of Anatolia was also lost. In addition, the appearance of the Seljuks in the Byzantine Empire ultimately gave rise to the Crusades.

Ways of warfare also changed. The Arab threat to Constantinople directly led to the creation of the secret weapon known as Greek fire. With the arrival of the Turks, warfare in the region switched to an increasing reliance on Turkic horse archers throughout much of the Islamic Empire.

Although the Islamic world is often viewed in monolithic terms—one massive entity—in reality, it was too large and too divisive to exist as a single entity. Even the concept of a theocracy did not last long, which led to the diminished authority of the caliph. In addition to challenges to the religious authority of the caliph, the rise of the sultans challenged the temporal authority of the caliphs.

Although some territory was lost over time (such as in Spain), the lands brought under Muslim influence during the period when Islam expanded remain the core of the modern Islamic world.

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Kennedy, Hugh. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. London: Routledge, 2001.

Kennedy, Hugh and Babir, Karl.The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2003.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007.

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Robinson, Chase. Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest: The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.