Military Developments

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Military Developments


Expansion . The territory of the earliest Muslim state, which modern historians call the khilafah for the period beginning in 632, expanded with startling rapidity. The ideological justification and proximate reason for this expansion was what the early Muslims understood as a divine imperative to claim the entire earth for God’s rule (Qur’an 9: 33; 48: 28; 61: 9). This military action continued with several interruptions for more than one hundred years until the beginning of the great Berber revolt against the Umayyads in 740, and it represents one of the greatest sustained military expansions in the history of the world, comparable in duration and extent with the territorial expansions of the Romans, the Mongols, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans. After 740, when the khilafah’s sovereignty reached from Morocco to the borders of modern China, this expansion almost completely stopped, to be resumed only partially and intermittently by local states on particular frontiers. Because more than one Muslim state existed after 740, Islam ceased to be associated in any sense with any one particular state, which led to the increasing dissociation of religion from the state throughout the rest of the medieval period.

Chronology . The era of early expansion may be divided into several periods (623–656, 661–683, 692–718, 720–740) broken by hiatuses having various causes. After its foundation by the Prophet Muhammad at Madinah in 622, the Muslim polity gained domination of that oasis by 627, acquired Khaybar to the north in 629, and established hegemony over western Arabia by 632. Under the first khalifah, Abu Bakr (ruled 632–634), the Muslims established firm control over all of Arabia, and no further opposition to Islam arose there. Under Umar ibn al-Khattab (634–644), the Muslim state took control of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and western Iran, annexing most of the Persian empire and depriving the Byzantine Empire of its most populous provinces. During the reign of ‘Uthman (644–656) came the final overthrow of the Persian empire, Muslim expeditions to North Africa, and the defeat of the Byzantine fleet, establishing Muslim control of the Mediterranean Sea from 655 to 678. Thus, what had developed under the Prophet from a small religious community to a city-state to a local territorial state in western Arabia with only a few institutions had by the end of ‘Uth-man’s reign became a vast empire ruling over millions of mostly non-Muslim subjects, all within the lifetimes of many of the Companions of the Prophet, who could no doubt recall the early days in Arabia when Muslims had no state. Indeed, the Muslim state by 656 was the largest and strongest in the world apart from T’ang-dynasty China, dwarfing the Byzantine Empire and completely outclassing the insignificant tribal kingdoms of Europe.

Continuing Expansion . The next major advance of the khilafah took place in the period of 692–718. During this period, Muslim armies subdued North Africa (698–710), Spain (called al-Andalus in Arabic, 711–718), Central Asia (or Transoxiana, 709–715), and Sind (part of modern Pakistan, 712–715). This expansion involved the elimination of the Byzantines from North Africa and the overthrow of the Visigoth kingdom of Spain, various Iranian and Turkish principalities in Central Asia, and the Brahmin kingdom of Sind. All these campaigns climaxed under the Umayyad khalifah al-Walid I (ruled 705–715). They were followed by an all-out drive in 717–718 to capture Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, which would have eliminated the main surviving rival. This attempt failed completely, however, and the Muslims lost control of the sea to the Byzantines again. This campaign represents the high noon of Umayyad expansion, for although campaigning was resumed in 720 and continued until 740, it was not successful in making any lasting additions to the khilafah, which thereafter gradually shrank geographically.

Losses and Gains . The Umayyads’ successors, the Abbasids, were confronted with the loss of Muslim unity caused by the successful Berber revolt that began in Morocco and Algeria in 740 and the re-establishment in 756 of Umayyad rule in the distant refuge of Spain, where the dynasty ruled until 1031. The Abbasids were scarcely able to secure their rule in the rest of the khilafah and could not renew campaigns outside their borders for a long time. By 763, they had finally resumed offensive campaigns against the Byzantines in Anatolia, but without any lasting success. Indeed, by the tenth century the Muslims were on the defensive on their frontier with the Byzantines, and the khalifahs lost all their former power to direct campaigns there. The Byzantines even recaptured Antioch in 969 and threatened Aleppo and Damascus. Most further Muslim military efforts occurred on specific fronts under the direction of particular local rulers. The best known of these include the campaigns of the Ghaznawids (977–1187) and the Ghurids (1152–1215) to extend the rule of Islam into Punjab and from there to the rest of northern India. The Ghaznawids conducted their campaigns especially under Mahmud of Ghazna (ruled 997–1030), who acquired a considerable empire in Afghanistan and Punjab and conducted deep raids into India. It was not until the time of the Ghurids that such military expeditions led to a long-lasting extension of Muslim rule east of Lahore. The Ghurid sultan defeated the Hindu princes in 1192; Delhi, Kanauj, and Bihar were taken in 1193; Ajmer in Rajasthan was occupied in 1197; and Bengal was subdued in 1199–1202. This startlingly rapid expansion resulted in the capture of the entire densely populated Ganges River valley in only about ten years. This area remained under Muslim rule until its annexation by the British in 1757–1803. The Ghurids’ efforts were followed by the establishment of the independent Muslim Sultanate of Delhi (1211–1556) in India, which continued to extend the area ruled by the Muslims, particularly under the sultans Iltutmish (1211–1236), ‘Ala’ al-Din Khalji (1296–1316), and Muhammad ibn Tughluq (1325–1351). After the mid fourteenth century, the Sultanate of Delhi tended to disintegrate, but smaller sultanates that broke off from it continued to extend Muslim control in southern India. Unlike the territories of the Umayyad khilafah, all of which eventually became predominantly Muslim except Spain, the areas of India taken after 1192 have all remained mostly Hindu, except for eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh. However, a substantial number of Indians did embrace Islam over the centuries, such that 30 percent of the population in South Asia, including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, is now Muslim.

Asia Minor . Another front on which a later Muslim expansion took place was in Anatolia against the Byzantines. The khilafah had taken Egypt and Syria from the Byzantines during the first expansion of 634–642; the Taurus Mountains remained the frontier between the Byzantines and the Muslims for more than three centuries, until 962, when the Byzantines began seriously to advance south of the mountains once more. But in 1071, the Saljuk sultan Alp Arslan (1063–1072) defeated and captured the Byzantine emperor at Malazgirt (Manzikert), and within ten years almost all of Anatolia was under Muslim control. The Muslims tried to consolidate their gains by organizing them under the Saljuk Sultanate of Rum (1077–1308), which was completely independent of the main Saljuk sultanate farther east. In 1097–1099 the First Crusade helped

to restore Byzantine rule to part of Anatolia but also led to long disorders and wars. Eventually much of the population became Muslim. The Ottoman sultanate, founded about 1299 as a small principality in northwest Anatolia near Brusa, took up the struggle against the Byzantine Empire, driving the Byzantines from their last major base in Anatolia at Nicomedia in 1337. Since that time, Anatolia has constituted the main region of the country of Turkey. The Ottomans continued their campaigning nonstop into Europe, crossing at Gallipoli in 1355. In 1389, they defeated a coalition of Serbs and others at Kosovo, capping their control of the Balkans. Constantinople, now called Istanbul, was taken in 1453, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire, and the last small Greek states fell in 1460 and 1461. By 1500, the Ottoman Empire was one of the strongest Muslim states. Although Anatolia and part of Thrace became predominantly Muslim—as did Albania, Kosovo, and part of Bosnia—most of the Balkans remained Orthodox Christian under Ottoman rule. Other than these advances in India, Anatolia, and the Balkans, Muslim states and empires after the khilafah period largely did not occupy other areas by military force. On the contrary, in the West Muslims suffered a great reverse when the Spanish Christians drove them from Spain in a long series of campaigns starting with the Christian capture of Toledo in the center of the Iberian peninsula in 1085. Although the Moroccan dynasties of the al-Murabitun, or Almoravids, and the al-Muwahhidun, or Almohads, managed to counter the Christian onslaught for a while, the decisive defeat of the latter by the Christians in 1212 led to the eventual loss of the Muslim metropolises of Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248. After that time, Muslim rule in Spain was confined to a small area around Granada, which finally fell in 1492. Muslims continued to live in Spain a while longer, but all those remaining were eventually either forced to convert to Christianity or expelled in 1609–1614. The Muslims also lost the island of Sicily, which they partly controlled from 827 to 1090, and there as well no Muslims were permitted to remain after the reign of Frederick II (1212–1250). Elsewhere before 1500, Islam often spread as the religion of the state when the local rulers embraced it, especially in West and East Africa and Southeast Asia, in all of which Islam was well established by 1500. Islam was also preached in areas where some of the population, but not the rulers, became Muslims, as in China, for example.

The Crusades . One other series of campaigns that left its mark on Muslim military history was the invasion of Asia Minor and greater Syria by Western European Crusaders, starting in 1097. These campaigns enabled the Byzantines to maintain their hold on part of Anatolia and established colonies, known as Crusader kingdoms (or Latin kingdoms), all along the Syrian coast that lasted for nearly two centuries. Although the Crusaders had some early successes, they were unable to conquer the pivotal country of Egypt (failing in 1167–1169, 1218–1221, and 1248–1250) and in the end they lost all their territory in Syria, including the city of Jerusalem, their ostensible goal, which the Europeans held only in 1099–1187 and 1229–1244. When the Europeans made one last futile attempt to launch a crusade in 1396, the Ottoman Turks completely defeated them at the Battle of Nicopolis. Although it is sometimes said that the Crusades helped to introduce Muslim sciences into Western Europe, little such exchange

took place in the East. Rather, the great conduits of that cultural flow were through Spain and Sicily. The Crusades did, however, make the Muslims aware of the danger posed by European aggression.

Organization and Technology . Similar to that of other medieval peoples, Muslim military organization and technology evolved over the centuries. From the time the Visigoths defeated and killed the Roman emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, long before the life of the Prophet Muhammad, cavalry had been the dominant branch of any army and remained so throughout the medieval period as far as the Muslims were concerned. The earliest Muslim armies enjoyed spectacular and unparalleled successes for more than a century during expansion of the khilafah (624–740). Though information about military organization and technology for this early period is scanty, the Muslim armies represented a revolution in military tactics, organization, and perhaps weaponry. The Qur’an (3: 146, 152–159, 173, 186; 61: 4) commands Muslims to fight patiently without flinching, to maintain a solid battle line, and not to be tempted to break ranks to grab spoils, a serious temptation for medieval armies that caused the near defeat of Uhud in 625. Such verses show that the Muslims, even that early in their history, were already far beyond the individualized raiding tactics of the tribes. How this new organization and discipline arose is obscure although it may be supposed that some help came from contacts with the Byzantines or the Persians—as is suggested by the story that a Persian client suggested digging a trench that confounded the Muslims’ opponents at the Battle of the Trench in 627. Muslim army divisions and regiments were organized purely according to tribal affiliations. While there seems to have been no compulsory conscription in the Prophet’s time, judging by the many exhortations to volunteer in the Qur’an, the armies of the early khilafah nevertheless consisted of a mass mobilization of free Muslim citizens. Motivation to join came as much from ideological enthusiasm as from hope for material gain. Troops were raised about equally from all regions of Arabia, as there are records of tribal regiments from all areas. The heavily populated region of Yemen, whose inhabitants were farmers, probably contributed half the troops. Elsewhere in Arabia, too, most of the inhabitants were farmers, not nomads. While it is possible that Muslims rode camels as well as horses in some early battles, there is no doubt that the horse quickly asserted itself as the main vehicle of cavalry. Infantry was used as well, but cavalry was dominant, and by law the cavalryman received the greater share of the spoils. When members of the defeated Persian elite cavalry agreed to become Muslims, they were welcomed into the Muslim army, an indication of how highly the Persian cavalry was respected.

Professional Soldiers . The biggest transformation in Muslim military organization to occur during the medieval period was the replacement of the volunteer citizen army with professional soldiers. To some extent, this evolution echoed the change that took place in the Roman army, which was an army of temporarily conscripted citizens

under the republic but became more fully professional under the empire. Professionalization of the Muslim military started when certain princes used the armies of private retainers at the end of the Umayyad khilafah. The transformation did not become complete, however, until al-Mu’tasim turned to Turkish soldiers in 833. From this time onward, professional soldiers began to predominate in the military across the Muslim world. Furthermore, these soldiers were increasingly non-Muslims who were bought from beyond the frontiers of Islam as boys, brought up in Islam, trained to be professional warriors, and freed along the way. As early as 861, these professional military men began to interfere in the government. Often of Turkish origin, they eventually formed the political elite of various states, especially the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Syria (1250–1517) and the Sultanate of Delhi (1211–1556). The progress of these professional soldiers was accompanied by technological developments as well. Cavalrymen gradually became more heavily armed and armored. The crossbow, which had vastly more force than the traditional bow, was a heavier yet less maneuverable weapon. Siege techniques improved, but so did defensive walls of stone, so castles were often able to hold out against an enemy even when the surrounding countryside had fallen. Catapults, which had been developed much earlier by the Greeks and Romans, also became heavier.

Naval Forces . On the sea, the Muslims gradually established considerable control over the western part of the Indian Ocean, but in the Mediterranean Sea they only

occasionally triumphed over the Christians to the north. For the most part the Byzantines maintained their naval dominance for some centuries. Their naval dominance was partly achieved through the invention of “Greek Fire,” a naphtha compound that was shot from tubes mounted on Byzantine ships and burst into flames as it hit the enemy ships. Greek Fire was also used against armies besieging Byzantine cities. Only after 1000 were the Byzantines gradually overtaken on the sea by the Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.


Khalid Yahya Blankinship, The End of the Jihad State: The Reign of Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1994).

Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

P. M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517 (London: Longman, 1986).

Walter Emil Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century (London: Longman, 1986).