Armies of Muḥammad and the Caliphate Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The armies inspired by Islam unified the fractious Arabian Peninsula in the Riddah Wars (Wars of Apostasy) during the eight years before Muḥammad’s death in 632 and the subsequent rule of his father-in-law, Abū Bakr, the first khalīfat rasul al-Lah (successor to the messenger of God, often rendered as “caliph”).

Political Considerations

The armies inspired by Islam unified the fractious Arabian Peninsula in the Riddah Wars (626-632)Riddah Wars (Wars of Apostasy) during the eight years before MuḥammadMuḥammad (founder of Islam)[Muhammad]Muḥammad’s death in 632 and the subsequent Caliphatesrule of his father-in-law, Abū BakrAbū Bakr[Abu Bakr]Abū Bakr, the first khalīfat rasul al-Lah (successor to the messenger of God, often rendered as “caliph”). From 636 to 714, relatively small but disciplined armies conquered a large portion of the Byzantine Empire;Islamic incursions Byzantine Empire and the entire Sāsānians[Sasanians] Sāsānian Persia;Islamic incursions Persian Empire, both exhausted by twenty-seven years of continuous mutual warfare. The Arabic language Arabic language, which previously had no written grammar, became the language of religion, scholarship, law, and commerce over wide areas of western and southern Asia and northern Africa. Islam, a revealed faith centered in the isolated cities of Mecca and Medina (the latter formerly called Yathrib), became one of the world’s largest religions.Armies;IslamicIslamic armiesIslam;caliphateMuslimsArmies;IslamicIslamic armiesIslam;caliphateMuslims

Three distinct caliphates ruled a more or less united, and expanding, Dar-al-Islam[Dar al Islam]Dar-al-Islam (literally “home” or “abode,” a division of the Islamic world) from 632 until about 909. Abū Bakr, the consensus choice to lead the fledgling Muslim community, oversaw collection of notes from Muḥammad’s revelations, which would become the Holy Qur՚ān[Quran]Qur՚ān, and organized the command structure of a disciplined army. Three more Rashidun caliphsrashidun (rightly guided) caliphs, from Muḥammad’s inner circle, were chosen by consensus of the shūrā, elders of the Muslim community. The second caliph, ՙUmar IՙUmar I[Umar 01] ՙUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, adopted the title amīr al-mu՚minin, commander of the faithful. The two titles were used interchangeably, but over time, “caliph” was commonly the title of the highest ruler, while “emir” (or “amir”) was sometimes a subordinate office. ՙUthmān ibn ՙAffān followed ՙUmar, who was followed in 656 by Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Alī ibn Abī TalībAlī ibn Abī Talīb[Ali ibn Abi Talib] Alī ibn Abī Talīb.

ՙAlī’s caliphate was challenged by Mu՚āwiyah ibn ՙAbī SufynāMu՚āwiyah ibn ՙAbī Sufynā[Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyna]Mu՚āwiyah ibn ՙAbī Sufynā, a son of Mecca’s Banū UmayyadsUmayya clan, wealthiest of the QurayshQuraysh (Arabic Quraš). Muḥammad’s Banū Hāshim clan were Quraysh, although lower on the social scale. Years of Fitnasfitna, wars between Muslims, ended in 661, when Mu՚āwiyah established the caliphate’s first hereditary dynasty, with its capital in Damascus. Adherents of ՙAlī, who had been pushed into what is now central and southern Iraq, became the nucleus of the Shia Islam Shia branch of Islam. ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] ՙAbbāsid caliphs (claiming descent from Muḥammad’s uncle, al-ՙAbbās) took power in 750 after another fitna, nearly exterminating the Umayyads, and established a new capital, which became Baghdad. One Umayyad prince, ՙAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Mu՚āwiyah ibn HishāmՙAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Mu՚āwiyah ibn Hishām[Abd al Rahman ibn Muawiyah] ՙAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Mu՚āwiyah ibn Hishām, established himself in 756 as emir in fractious al-Andalus (southern Spain), where his descendants would claim the title of caliph in 929.

Little effort was made to convert the inhabitants of conquered territory. ArabsArabs, like Jews, considered themselves the chosen people of God’s revelation. In the second sura (chapter), the Qur՚ān[Quran];on war[war]Qur՚ān enjoins believers to fight against unbelievers “until idolatry is no more and al-Lah’s religion reigns supreme” but also asserts, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” The first caliphs had little experience and less interest in the details of administration, which was left to clerks, judges, and administrators among the conquered peoples. UmayyadsUmayyad caliphs made sharp distinctions between Arabs, mawali (non-Arab converts to Islam), and dhimmi (non-Muslim subjects). The finances of the Umayyad caliphate depended heavily on the jizya, a tax paid by nonbelievers.

Social and political distinctions between different Arab identities persisted for centuries in military rivalry in newly acquired territories on three continents. Yemenis and southern Arabs competed with northern Arabs, while Arabs long settled in Syria (al-Shamiyyun) were resented by those remaining in the Hijaz of the Arabian Peninsula. BerbersBerbers in western North Africa, once converted to Islam, became rival claimants to power. One result of rapid conquest is that ArabiaArabia itself lapsed into tribal disunity as an isolated backwater of the growing empire. As early as 813, Iranians and Turks from beyond the Amu Dar’ya (Oxus River) dominated the armies of the ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids]ՙAbbāsid caliphs.

Muslim Empire in 760

The Dar-al-Islam[Dar al Islam]Dar-al-Islam ceased to be a single caliphate, even formally, by 909. The Fāṭimids[Fatimids]Fāṭimid Dynasty of IfriqiyaIfriqiya (modern Tunisia) formally established the first Shia caliphate, eventually extending from Tunisia to Egypt and Palestine. The Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba[Cordoba]Córdoba, established in 929, broke up into competing taifa states after 1031. By the 1080’s, successive Berber religious revivals known as al-Murabitun Almoravids (Almoravids) and fifty years later al-Muwaḥḥidūn Almohads (Almohads) built their own empires in the Maghreb of North Africa and al-Andalus. In Baghdad, Seljuk Turks Seljuk Turks intervened between 1055 and 1060 on behalf of the weakened ՙAbbāsid caliphs, against the efforts of Buyid princes to establish Shia rule and ally with the Fāṭimids[Fatimids] Fāṭimids. In 1058, the authority of the caliph was delegated to the Turkish general Tughril Tughril (or To&gcaron;rül) under the title of sultan. By the early 1100’s, political disintegration into a series of autonomous feudal estates left the sultanate vulnerable to the invading Frankish Crusades Crusades.

Military Achievement

Muḥammad’s MuḥammadMuḥammad (founder of Islam)[Muhammad]first accomplishment was to survive military confrontation with the future generals of Islamic conquest, his Meccan adversaries of the QurayshQuraysh clan. These battles began as traditional razzia, or raids against caravans. A successful ambush by a few hundred Muslims in March of 624 at Badr was followed in March, 625, by Meccan revenge in a Uhud, Battle of (625) battle at Uhud. In March, 627, an army of ten thousand Quraysh marched on Medina and was repulsed at the Trench, Battle of the (627) Battle of the Trench. A combination of tribal diplomacy, domination of trade routes, growing wealth, and the allegiance of Bedouins Bedouin warriors allowed Muḥammad to secure the capitulation of Mecca in January, 630, without battle.

Significant conquests outside the Arabian Peninsula began in 636, four years after the Prophet’s death, under the second caliph, ՙUmar IՙUmar I[Umar 01]ՙUmar I. After defeating a Roman and Armenian force of thirty thousand at the Jabiya-Yarmūk, Battle of (636)[Jabiya Yarmuk]Battle of Jabiya-Yarmūk on August 20, 636, the armies of Islam dominated Syria and Palestine. Jerusalem was surrendered after a seven-month siege in 638. Generous terms, allowing non-Muslims to pay the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims) and practic their own religion and laws, left little motive to die fighting Islam. Alexandria, Siege of (641)[Alexandria siege 0641]Alexandria, with impregnable walls and a garrison of as many as fifty thousand Roman soldiers, was surrendered by its patriarch in 641, following a five-month siege, to Muslim commander ՙAmr ibn al-ՙĀs. The Eastern Roman Empire lost close to 80 percent of its territory in five years.

In 637, the Iranian capital of Ctesiphon, Battle of (637)Qādisiyya, Battle of al- (637)[Qadisiyya, Battle of al]Ctesiphon fell after a battle with thirty thousand Sāsānians[Sasanians]Sāsānian soldiers near al-Qādisiyya, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, near the present location of Baghdad. The Sāsānian Empire ended after the Nihawand, Battle of (642)Battle of Nihawand in 642. Muslim influence reached and passed the Oxus River (Amu Dar’ya) into central Asia.

The first UmayyadsUmayyad caliph made a determined effort in 672-679 to take Constantinople, Siege of (717-718)[Constantinople, Siege of 717]Constantinople, sending a fleet of as many as one thousand ships into the Sea of Marmara, after seizing a number of Aegean islands. Extensive use of the incendiary weapon Greek fire“Greek fire” to destroy the caliph’s ships, together with the walls built by Emperor Theodosius IITheodosius II (Eastern Roman emperor)[Theodosius 02]Theodosius II, defeated the siege. The Theodosian walls were 5 yards thick, rose 12 yards high, and were constructed of brick and granite. In 717, Caliph SüleymanSüleyman (Umayyad caliph)[Suleyman Umayyad caliph]Süleyman (or SulaymānSulaymān (Umayyad caliph)[Sulayman]Sulaymān) ibn ՙAbd al-Malik tried again, with an army of eighty thousand, including the elite ahl al-Sham of Syria; Khorāsāni from northern Iran; cavalry from Persia, Iraq, Arabia, and Egypt; and infantry from as far away as the Oxus River and Ifriqiya. In addition to a fleet in the Sea of Marmara, Süleyman’s brother Maslama brought an army to the plains west of Constantinople, against the walls built by Anastasius I. The siege ended after eleven months, the caliphal army decimated by cold weather, shortage of food, disease, and a surprise attack by Bulgarians.

Mu՚awiya Mu՚āwiyah ibn ՙAbī SufynāMu՚āwiyah ibn ՙAbī Sufynā[Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyna]sent an army commanded by ՙUqbah ibn NāfiՙՙUqbah ibn Nāfiՙ[Uqbah ibn Nafi]ՙUqbah ibn Nāfiՙ into the Maghreb of western North Africa in 670. After initial success, ՙUqbah died in 682 in Ifriqiya fighting a Berber chieftain named KusaylaKusayla (Berber chieftain)Kusayla, supported by remaining Greco-Roman soldiers and a substantial Jewish population. The Muslim fortification of Kairouan, fall of (684)Qayrawan (Kairouan or Kirwan) fell in 684; for the next twenty years, forty thousand troops under Hasān ibn an-Nu՚mān al-GhassānīHasān ibn an-Nu՚mān al-Ghassānī[Hasan]Hasān ibn an-Nu՚mān al-Ghassānī fought to retake the Maghreb. A Jewish woman known as Kahina of the AurèsKahina of the AurèsKahina of the Aurès led resistance after the death of Kusayla. Emir Hasān’s soldiers captured Carthage in 690, but resistance was not fully ended until 704. A new vizier of Barqa and Ifriqiya, Mūsa ibn Nuṣayr, had employed diplomacy and Muslim ՙulama to secure Berber allegiance. By then, the caliphate had been through another fitna. After the death of Mu՚awiya’s son Yazīd and his son Mu՚awiya II, another branch of the Umayya, the Marwanids Marwanids, fought Arabs from the Hijaz region (including Mecca and Medina) in 684, ending with the Umayyad caliphate still ruling.

A convert from one of the Berber tribes, Tāriq ibn ZiyādTāriq ibn Ziyād[Tariq ibn Ziyad]Tāriq ibn Ziyād, was given command in 708 of Tangier, and in 711 he launched the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, where a VisigothsVisigothic aristocracy ruled a disarmed population of Iberians, Romans, and Jews. A single battle in July near the Guadalete, Battle of (711)Guadalete River and the town of Sidonia (Shaduna) eliminated King Roderick (king of the Visigoths)Roderick and a good part of the Visigothic nobility; Tāriq lost at least three thousand men. Eight hundred men under Mughith al-RumiMughith al-Rumi[Mughith al Rumi]Mughith al-Rumi, apparently a Roman convert, took the undermanned fortifications of Córdoba, while Tāriq found Toledo nearly deserted. Tāriq was joined in 712 by Mūsa ibn NuṣayrMūsa ibn Nuṣayr[Musa ibn Nusayr]Mūsa ibn Nuṣayr, with an additional eighteen thousand Yemeni soldiers. Sevilla resisted for three months in late 712; Merida was defended for more than five months in 713, including a charge by Visigothic cavalry and infantry, which badly damaged the besieging forces. At the end of 714, the entire land south of the Pyrenees, called Andalus, al-Andalus, al-al-Andalus by the new conquerors, was nominally subject to the caliph in Damascus. However, independent wālis resisted rule from emirs in Córdoba, even indulging in alliance with Aquitainian Christians. An incursion by Emir ՙAbd Allah al-GhafiqiՙAbd Allah al-Ghafiqi[Abd Allah al Ghafiqi] ՙAbd Allah al-Ghafiqi ՙAbd al-RaḥmānՙAbd al-Raḥmān[Abd al Rahman] (ՙAbd al-Raḥmān) into Aquitaine Aquitaine was repulsed by Charles MartelCharles Martel Charles Martel, the Frankish king, at Tours, Battle of (732) Tours in 732. A Berbers Berber revolt in 739 preoccupied caliphal armies in Spain and Africa for many years. By 795, CharlemagneCharlemagne Charlemagne’s Spanish March Spanish March had fostered small Christian kingdoms in the northern part of what became modern Spain, benefiting from alliance with wālis dissatisfied with the new Umayyad emirate established in 756.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The armies that emerged from the Armor;Islamic soldiersArabian Peninsula fought mainly with sword and spear, often wearing felt armor and carrying shields of various leathers. Helmets were rare, although Mail;Islamic soldiersChain mail;Islamic soldierschain mail and iron helmets were not unknown. Armored infantry were generally placed in the front ranks to protect those with lighter or no armor. Javelins were sometimes used prior to physical contact. At the Ctesiphon, Battle of (637)Qādisiyya, Battle of al- (637)[Qadisiyya, Battle of al]Battle of al-Qādisiyya in 637, a Muslim army fought thirty thousand Sāsānians with darts, arrows, spears, swords, and battle-axes.

Bedouin Lances;Bedouinlances–one 5 cubits in length, another 11 cubits–were the main cavalry weapon. (A cubit was defined as the length of a man’s forearm.) Cavalry;BedouinHorse-mounted cavalry were equipped with shields, hauberks, and helmets and were armed with swords on baldrics; Horses and horse ridinghorsemen also carried a packing needle, five small needles, linen thread, an awl, scissors, and a horses’s nose-bag and feed basket. Leather loop Stirrupsstirrups were known but despised as a sign of weakness and therefore seldom used. When Muslim conquest reached Khorāsān at the close of the seventh century, iron stirrups were adopted, spreading back across Mesopotamia and Africa.

Under the Cavalry;UmayyadUmayyad caliphs, cavalry were supplied with lances, maces, swords, and the khanjar daggers. Berber cavalry, who fought first against the Muslims, then became fierce soldiers of Islam, were wearing the imama (a turban over a metal cap) and coats of light mail under leather.

Iranian (Persian) and Turkish Cavalry;PersianCavalry;Turkisharmies from central Asia, which came to dominate the later years of the caliphate, were predominantly cavalry, featuring armored archers shooting from horseback. Horses were protected by bards of felt, and riders were equipped with lamellar cuirasses, hauberks, arm covers, lances, and leather shields of Tibetan origin. Maces, battle-axes, and single-edged short swords were also used, and full-size swords were slightly curved.

Military Organization

Muḥammad and Abū Bakr organized the Armies;IsalmicMuslim armies into disciplined formations, contrary to previous Arab custom. Troops were drawn up in lines of battle with a center (qalb, literally heart), right wing (maymana), and left wing (maysara). Many fought in tribal units, with their own banners. As in Byzantine armies, Archers and archery;Islamic archers were deployed primarily to protect infantry flanks from enemy cavalry attacks.

The ՙAbbāsid Caliphate, c. 800

Distinctions between infantry and cavalry were blurred, since infantry was transported on horses and camels, while cavalry often dismounted, fighting on foot. Warhorses were rare and carefully conserved, led to battle, and mounted only when fighting began. Horses and horse riding;Islamic armiesHorses were a high priority for tribute from newly acquired territory. While Camelscamels were not used in battle, they allowed the infantry greater maneuverability in choosing the time and place to give battle.

For the first few decades, successive caliphs kept their armies apart from the conquered population, building garrison towns such as al-Kufa, Basra, Qayrawan, and al-Fustat. Jabiya, the principal military camp of the Bilad al-Sham, was larger than the city of Damascus, which it secured. Muslim soldiers were enrolled in a roster called the Diwansdiwan, with a salary according to a fixed pay scale, initiated by the second rashidun caliph, ՙUmar. Under the caliphate of Mu՚awiya (661-680) the diwan reached forty thousand names but was thereafter closed, enrollment becoming a privilege rather than a routine record of enlistment.

Regional armies were organized or designated in territories that became part of the Dar-al-Islam, both the region and the army known as a Jundsjund. The soldiers were Arab settlers, supported by tax revenue from their area. Junds were assigned for Damascus, Jordan (with the capital at Tiberias), Palestine (capital at Jerusalem), Ascalon, and Homs. Later junds were designated for Qunnasrin (including Antioch, Manbij, and Aleppo). The original jund established in Egypt included south Arabian or Yemeni tribes, principally the Azd, Himyar, Kinda, and Lakhm. Junds were also designated in al-Andalus. The original leadership were ahl al-Raya, or “people of the standard,” drawn from the Quraysh and the ansar, companions of the Prophet. Parcels of land known as khittas were allotted to each tribal group. Soldiers in the jund were enrolled in the diwan, and received monthly pay called ata. Inevitably, the junds became power centers on which caliphs, rebels, or challengers relied to uphold the current ruler or overturn him, to sustain the unity of the Dar-al-Islam, or to secede from caliphal authority. In the late ninth century, junds were largely replaced by the Turkish ghulams.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Fāṭimids, c. 1040

Speed Tactics;Islamic caliphatesStrategies;Islamic caliphatesand maneuverability accounted for many of the early Arab victories over larger, better armored and well-established armies, trained to hold fixed positions or move en masse. Offensive moves called karr wa farr, repeated attack and retreat, were employed not only against Byzantine andSāsānians[Sasanians]Sāsānian forces but also against Visigoths Visigothic Hispania, which became Muslim al-Andalus. At the Battle of Jabiya-Yarmūk, Battle of (636)[Jabiya Yarmuk] Jabiya-Yarmūk in 636, a feigned retreat on the third day of fighting byĀmir ibn ՙAbdullāh ibn al-Jarrāh’s troops drew Armenian general Vahan’s infantry in pursuit, opening space for Khālid ibn al-Walīd’s soldiers to drive a wedge between Byzantine infantry and cavalry, ending the battle in a rout. The armored cavalry of Tāriq ibn Ziyād similarly opened a wedge in the Visigothic line near the Guadalete, Battle of (711) Guadalete River in July, 711. Repeated charges failed to dent the Sāsānian cataphracts at Ctesiphon, Battle of (637) Qādisiyya, Battle of al- (637)[Qadisiyya, Battle of al] al-Qādisiyya in 637, and Iranian war elephants panicked Arab cavalry horses. After experienced elephant fighters arrived on the third day, sending the

elephants crashing back into the Sāsānian line, Persian discipline broke down. With limited room to maneuver, the defenders were driven into the Euphrates River.

Medieval Sources

Prior to the emergence of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula, there was little tradition of either scholarship or written literature in the Arabic language. Perhaps the most comprehensive Muslim scholarship roughly contemporary to the history of Muḥammad and the Caliphate is

Abū Jaՙfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī’s Ṭabarī, al-Ṭabarī, al-[Tabari, al]History of al-Ṭabarī Ta՚rīkh al-rusul wa al-mulūk (872-973; The History of al-Ṭabarī, 1985-1999, 39 volumes). Individual volumes include Muḥammad at Mecca (volume 6) and The Conquest of Iraq, Southwestern Persia, and Egypt (volume 13). Al-Ṭabarī was already well known for an exhaustive multivolume commentary on the Holy Qur՚ān, completed about 903 c.e. A later reference is Ibn KhaldūnIbn Khaldūn[Ibn Khaldun] Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah (Ibn Khaldūn) Muqaddimah (1375-1379; The Muqaddimah, 1958; also translated as An Introduction to History, 1967). While much of the material is secondary, it offers the most detailed primary material on the history of the Mahgreb.

Offering a rare glimpse from the nearly illiterate lands north of the Pyrenees is the Royal Frankish Annals Carolingian Chronicles Annales regni Francorum (741-829; Royal Frankish Annals in Carolingian Chronicles, 1970), which includes reference to the Spanish March Spanish March. While most Byzantine manuscripts from this period have not been preserved, TheophanesTheophanes Theophanes’ Chronographia (Theophanes) Chronicle of Theophanes, The (Theophanes) Chronographia (815; The Chronicle of Theophanes, 1982) draws on many lost sources, and it along with Breviarium historicum (Nikephoros) NikephorosNikephoros Short History (Nikephoros) Nikephoros’s Breviarium historicum (787; Short History, 1990) are both available in English translation.Armies;IslamicIslamic armiesIslam;caliphateMuslims

Books and Articles
  • Donner, Fred McGraw. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Kaegi, Walter Emil. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Kennedy, Hugh N. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the Arab World: Faith, People, Culture. New York: Knopf, 1976.
  • Lewis, David Levering. God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
  • Nicolle, David. Armies of the Muslim Conquest. New York: Osprey, 1993.
  • _______. Poitiers, A.D. 732. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Nicolle, David, and Angus McBride. The Armies of Islam, 7th-11th Centuries. New York: Osprey, 1982.
Films and Other Media
  • Islam: Empire of Faith. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2000.
  • Muḥammad: Messenger of God (in North America as The Messenger). Documentary. Moustapha Akkad, 1976.
  • The Story of Islam. Documentary. ABC News, 1983.

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