Military Advances

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Military Advances


Military Challenges . Islam arose during the seventh century, during a period when the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian Sasanid (Persian) Empire were battling for control of the region. As the Muslim empire expanded, they had to face formidable enemies and contend with various nomadic tribes. Later, Muslim territory came under attack from various Turkic and Mongol ethnic groups and Christian Crusaders from western Europe. The outcome of a battle was often decided by who had the strongest and best-trained horses or the latest in military technology. Many Arab military manuscripts describe early Muslims’ development of military technology to counter the superior weaponry of the sophisticated and experienced Byzantine and Persian cavalries.

Edged Weapons . The sword was a cavalryman’s most important weapon, and one form of metallurgy in which Muslim artisans excelled was the art of making swords, which were not only weapons but works of art. Muslim swords from Muslim lands were coveted by soldiers everywhere, including Europe. The best swords were made of Damascus steel, which was strong, but flexible enough not to break in battle, and hard enough to hold a sharp edge. It was produced by adding carbon to iron and melting it in a hot crucible, a process that originated in India and was perfected in Persia, Damascus, and then in Toledo in Muslim Spain. Fine cutlery is still made at some of these centers. After the iron and carbon became molten steel, other ingredients were added—including pomegranate rinds, salt, and pearl shells—to make patterns in the steel once it was beaten into a sword. Early swords were slightly curved, single-edged weapons and were often decorated with inlaid designs or religious inscriptions. On the best swords, the grip and the scabbard were also highly decorated. The lance was a good weapon for keeping one’s enemy at a distance, and it was less expensive than a sword. Typically, a lance was made by attaching an iron spearhead to a long piece of wood or even a thin tree branch. Other equipment for cavalrymen included javelins, knives, maces, and shields.

Bows . Archers were particularly important to the outcome of a battle, and bows were used in ancient Egypt. After they defeated the Persians, who were skilled archers, in the seventh century, the Muslims adopted the bow from their new subjects and soon improved it. Unlike the wooden bows used in the West, the Turkic “composite” bow had a wooden core that was reinforced with animal horn on the side that faced the archer, and it was covered with sinew (animal tendons). The power of this complex weapon came from the fact that it was a “reflex” bow; that is, it was first curved in one direction and then bent the opposite way when it was strung, usually with a silk or gut bowstring. This technique created an extremely taut weapon that could shoot an arrow a long distance, and this bow has been called the most effective weapon developed before the invention of firearms. It had a range of 1,500 feet. When fitted with an arrowhead that had a triangular cross section, an arrow shot from it had the force to penetrate mail armor from almost 500 feet away. While Muslims held archers in high esteem, European knights initially viewed the bow as an infantry weapon of little importance until their defeat by highly skilled Muslim archers changed their minds. Because it was difficult to draw and cumbersome for a man on horseback, the crossbow was not widely used by Muslim armies until the twelfth century, and even then it was primarily used as a siege weapon or in naval warfare. Once it was modified for use on horseback, however, it became the preferred weapon in Muslim Spain. The new version allowed a cavalryman to hold the bow in place with a stirrup and shoot arrows while riding at a fast pace.

Siege Equipment . One of the most effective methods of defeating an enemy in medieval times was the military siege, in which an army surrounded a fortified city and either attacked it and entered its gates or cut off its food and water supplies and waited for the inhabitants to surrender while harassing them by various means. Since ancient times catapults had been used to throw large rocks and various sorts of missiles. The trebuchet catapult, which was developed in China and introduced to Muslim warriors during the seventh century, had a sling attached to one end of a long wooden beam that was mounted on a tall framework. When people holding ropes pulled the other end of the beam downward, the sling end launched a projectile at or over the city walls. Because of their limited power, early trebuchets had to be within 150 feet of their target to be effective. By the twelfth century, however, the powerful counterweight trebuchet had come into use. This weapon replaced people pulling ropes with a heavy lead weight or stones, and the increased weight countering the missiles in the sling made the machine able to lob as much as five hundred pounds from a distance of 1,000 feet. Its place of origin has been disputed, but the bulk of historical evidence points to the Muslim world. For example, when the Chinese were using it in the thirteenth century, they called the counterweight trebuchet the “Muslim Phao” (Muslim throwing machine). By that time it was in widespread use and had proved an extremely effective weapon for both the Christian Crusaders and their Muslim enemies.

Incendiary Weapons . Fire has been used as a military weapon since ancient times, particularly in areas of the Near East where naft (petroleum) seeps naturally from the ground. The word naft came to denote various kinds of military incendiary materials, even if they were not derived from petroleum. In addition to liquid petroleum,

the incendiary materials used in pre-Islamic times included liquid pitch; mixtures of pitch, resin, and sulfur; and mixtures of quicklime and sulfur with materials such as bitumen, resin, or petroleum. The best-known medieval incendiary weapon is the so-called Greek fire, an unknown flammable substance given to the Byzantines in about 673 by an architect who had defected from Arab Syria to Byzantium. This secret weapon helped the Byzantines protect themselves from Muslim attacks for centuries, until Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The Crusaders called it “Greek fire,” but the Byzantines never used that name. After the eighth century, Muslim innovations increased the efficiency of incendiary weapons. Many historians believe that the secret ingredient they added to the flammable substances used earlier was saltpeter (potassium nitrate), while others point to the Muslims’ expertise at distillation, which would have enabled them to increase the effectiveness of naft. By the time of the Abbasid dynasty in the eighth-thirteenth centuries, Muslim armies included special troops trained in using weapons of fire. Practicing an early form of psychological warfare, these soldiers and their specially-trained horses wore fireproof uniforms that were covered with burning firecrackers. While approaching their enemies at high speed, the fire warriors lobbed incendiary devices filled with burning naft.

Gunpowder . The first use of gunpowder by the Muslims is unknown. Archaeological excavations at Fustat (old Cairo) have uncovered traces of gunpowder in the firepots used to burn the city in 1168. According to many historians, the use of incendiary explosives filled with gunpowder was the deciding factor in the Battle of Mansura (1250), at which the Muslim forces of Turan Shah defeated the Crusaders and captured King Louis IX of France. The exact nature of these weapons is unknown, though some historians believe they were “real artillery.” The French chronicler Jean de Joinville, who fought in the battle, described one of these weapons: “It was like a big cask and had a trail the length of a large spear: the noise it made resembled thunder and it appeared like a great fiery dragon flying through the air.” Primitive cannon, which used gunpowder to shoot iron balls, were used by Muslim troops in North Africa as early as 1204 and in Spain by 1248. By the middle of the thirteenth century, they were used in the Muslim East.


Michael D. Coe and others, Swords and Hilt Weapons (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).

Frances and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).

Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Unesco, 1987).