Understanding Ancient Muslim Art of War
What made the armies of the nascent Muslim nation triumph over the Armies of such established powers like the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia? After all, Byzantium had in the previous decade succeeded in wresting back the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt which had been annexed by Persia. Emperor Heraclius had even won the admiration of all Christendom by forcing the Persians to hand back the ‘True Cross’ which they had spirited away as booty and had the same restored in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in September 629 AD. The main reasons that come to mind are:
- The Muslim army’s basic organisation for war was sound, allowed flexibility in deployment and lessened their chances for being ‘surprised’.
- The Arabs war-gamed and practiced for every major contingency, before engaging their enemy. During an engagement, in every Sub-Unit, cohesion was maintained irrespective of losses suffered. The Muslim generals were always on the lookout for opportunities and were flexible in the employment of different components to press home an advantage which helped to unsettle the rigid battle plans of their opponents.
- The Muslims were always merciful to those who surrendered and accepted Islam. However, they did not spare those who resisted.
1. Vanguard / Reserve – I
2. Main Body
(Infantry, Cavalry & Supporting Arms)
3. Flank Guard – I
(Cameleers / Cavalry)
3A. Flank Guard – II
(Cameleers / Cavalry)
4. Rear Guard / Reserve – II
(Cameleers / Cavalry / Infantry)
5. Administrative Camp / Rear Base
(Camp Guard of Infantry & Cameleers)
Note: The Arab contingents moved light and had no ‘Baggage Train’. They practiced ‘Feint Attacks’ and ‘Ruses’ with precision to create a Weak Spot at their chosen Point of Attack, by making the Enemy carry out wrong re-adjustments prematurely / hurriedly. The Muslims practiced attacking under unfavourable weather conditions.
- The Muslim armies did not resort to pillage after a victory. They shared the captured booty equitably amongst themselves and only asked for the payment of a fair tribute from the captured population.
- The Muslims relied on a good intelligence network and always built up channels of communication with traitors and dissenters in the opponent’s camp.
- In the battles fought, the opponents of the Muslims failed to concentrate their cavalry quickly for decisive offensive action in order to press home the advantage.
- The Battle of Yarmuk Valley was technically and tactically badly fought by the Byzantine commander who kept repeating the same ‘Double Envelopment’ manoeuvre. He grossly underestimated the quality of Arab generalship. This single defeat led to the rise and spread of Islam outside Arabia.
- Before the Battle of Qadisiyyah, the Persians dithered for three months and allowed the Arabs to build up strength, whereas they could have easily routed them. In the same battle, the Persians used text-book tactics repeatedly and were predictable. On the first day, they could not exploit the shock effect of the employment of their Elephant Corps, as both it and their cavalry were employed in a piece-meal manner.
- The Persians were fighting across River Ateeq. Therefore, any temporary setback easily created panic, as this impassable river was on their rear side.
- The Muslims displayed greater cohesion and aggressive spirit in the first three days of the Battle, whereas the Persians failed to quickly employ their Reserves fully to get a breakthrough and achieve success..
The Muslim State was usually fair in the distribution of booty won in war…
Further Muslim Conquests
By 652 AD, the Muslims completed the conquest of Byzantine Armenia and the Provinces of ancient Persia including Faris, Kurasan and Makran. The illustrious Arab General Amr As who had completed the conquest of Palestine, took Caliph Ummar’s permission in December 639 AD to take a force of 4,000 cavalry and probe towards Egypt, which was under Byzantine control. By mid-640 AD, he had captured the area up to Babilyun in Upper Egypt (near present day Cairo). He then received a reinforcing column of 10,000 men under the Prophet’s Companion Zubayr Awwam.
The Byzantine army under General Augustalis was routed thereafter in the Battle of Ayn Shams in July 640 AD. The fortress of Babilyun was stormed by Zubayr’s column in April 641 AD and captured. The Arab General Amr As boosted by fresh reinforcements of 20,000, pressed on towards the Nile Delta and Alexandria (Iskandariyah) which was then the second most prosperous city in the world after Constantinople. The political authority there was the Greek Orthodox Church bishop Mukawqis (Cyrus). Instead of actively defending the prized city with 50,000 troops and 100 naval ships at his command, he kept on sending alarming reports to Emperor Constans II, who had succeeded Heraclius in February 641 AD. This cowardly bishop signed a ‘standstill agreement’ with the Muslim General Amr in November 641 AD, and completed the shameful evacuation of Alexandria by September 642 AD.
The city was briefly recaptured by a Byzantine Expeditionary Force in December 645 AD which suddenly landed up in 300 ships. But Amr soon put them to flight by launching swift counter attack. Thereafter, the third Caliph Uthman who had succeeded Ummar, appointed his trusted colleague Abdullah Saa‘d Sarh as the Vice Regent of Egypt. He immediately raised a powerful Muslim fleet based in Alexandria to prevent the recurrence of any Byzantine invasion by sea. Together with another powerful Muslim fleet raised by Mu‘awiyah, the new Governor of Syria and based at Ladhiqiyah (Latakia), they inflicted in 655 AD, a crushing defeat off the Lycian coast (East of Rhodes island) on the combined Byzantine fleet consisting of about 500 ships which was personally led by the Emperor Constans II. The control of the Mediterranean thereafter passed on to the Muslims.
When Prophet Muhammad took ill in early June 632 AD (10 Hijra era) and was about to die, he was prevented from leaving a Will and Testament about his future successor…
General Amr As then led expeditions to the West along the Mediterranean coast and captured the regions up to Tripolis by 643 AD. Abdullah Saa‘d Sarh expanded Muslim control further to the Carthaganian territory of present day Tunisia by 648 AD and converted the first lot of Berbers to Islam.
Internal Schism Amongst the Early Arab Muslims
When Prophet Muhammad took ill in early June 632 AD (10 Hijra era) and was about to die, he was prevented from leaving a Will and Testament about his future successor by the influential and shrewd Ummar Khatteb who argued that when the Holy Quran was there to guide the Muslims (the faithful), there was no need to prepare any other document in the name of the Prophet. Immediately after the Prophet’s death, by mutual arrangement between Abu Bakr, Ummar Khatteb and Ubaydah Jarrah who were senior lieutenants of the Prophet, they immediately got together the 50-odd influential Sahabahs (Prophet Muhammad’s steadfast Close Companions) and convinced them to elect the 58-year old Abu Bakr as the Khalifa (successor) to the Rusul (God’s Messenger – Muhammad), to foreclose the possibility of any disunity amongst members of the new faith from setting in. This apparent scheming incensed the Prophet’s 30-year old nephew cum son-in-law Ali Abi Talib, who was busy making the Prophet’s funeral arrangements. As he was presented with a unanimous fait accompli, he wisely kept his counsel and concurred.
Amongst the mass of Believers, everyone knew that he was the most deserving to be the Prophet’s Khalifa – as he was very devout, straightforward, the second person after Khadeeja to accept Muhammad’s prophet-hood and become a Muslim and he was also a proven brave and capable leader in battle. But the unexpected political manipulation won the day and absolute power passed into the hands of Abu Bakr who turned out to be a noble and pious Caliph. Abu Bakr was uncompromising in his zeal of extending the hold of Islam over the entire people of the Arabian Peninsula.
Abu Bakr died in August 634 AD. Before his death he made a written Will appointing Ummar Khatteb as the next Khalifa. The Sahabahs again endorsed this decision and the new Caliph soon got well established. Ali Abi Talib again felt cheated as he had done no canvassing for this office, thinking it was his due in the natural course of events. He continued his humble occupation as a gardener as he was even denied an estate by the new Caliph due to a judicial interpretation which did not go in his favour. Ummar was known as a strict and austere Caliph who brought in good administrative practices to the vastly expanded Muslim empire.
The pure egalitarianism of the Prophet and the first two Caliphs was forgotten and replaced by accumulation of wealth by a few.
Ummar died in November 644 AD. But before he died, Ummar again manipulated the succession by appointing a Committee consisting of the Sahabahs Abdur Rahman Awf, Saa‘d Abi Waqqas, Uthman Affan, Zubayr Awwam and Ali Abi Talib to do the selection from among themselves, with the caveat that if they do not come to a unanimous decision, those who have ‘voted against’ should be immediately executed after the result. The aged 65-year old merchant Uthman Affan was elected unanimously mainly due to the casting vote of Abdur Rahman Awf who had presided over the process and the rest of the members acceded to the decision.
The humble Ali again felt deeply cheated by the ‘fixing’ involved in this selection process, but continued to keep his counsel and did not exhibit any greed for high office. Uthman soon became very unpopular in Madeena due to the undue favours he bestowed on the members of the Umayyad clan of the Qureish tribe, with whom he was related by marriage. These Umayyads were the aristocracy of the Qureish and their leader Abu Sufyan had bitterly opposed the Prophet until the very end and they had no option left but to accept Islam. Under Caliph Uthman, corruption and nepotism became rampant and he turned out to be a weak-willed ruler. The pure egalitarianism of the Prophet and the first two Caliphs was forgotten and replaced by accumulation of wealth by a few.
The Later Great Muslim Captains of War
The first great Muslim dynasty were the Umayyads who were based at Damascus. It was founded by the shrewd and patient Muawiyah Sufyan who ruled from 661 to 680 AD, after the death of Caliph Ali at Kufah in Iraq. Caliph Ali had succeeded Uthman in June 656 AD. He moved out of Madeena because he disliked the treacherous dealings of the power brokers there. He became the fourth Muslim Caliph and ruled for five years. When Muawiyah seized power, he was ably supported by Amr As who was made the Governor of Egypt by Mughirah Shubah who was made the Governor of Iraq based at Kufah and by Ziyyad Abih who was made the Governor of Persia based at Basrah. The four of them had perfect understanding among them and were political geniuses who could overcome any problem through negotiations, persuasion or by use of force. Muawiyah’s great naval Admiral was Busr Artah who ensured Muslim naval dominance over the Byzantines in the Mediterranean.
Caliph Abdal Malik (685 – 705 AD), and his sons Walid I (705 -715 AD) and Hisham (724 – 743 AD) of the Marwanid Branch of the Umayyads brought great glory to the first Muslim dynasty. They achieved the second stage of Muslim conquests and consolidation. Hajjaj Yusuf Thaqqafi was the able general of Caliph Abdal Malik in the East. He first crushed Abdullah Zubayr who had declared himself Caliph and ruled over the Hijaz (Makkah and Madeena region), who was the son of the Prophet’s close companion and later Governor of Egypt Zubayr Awwam. Hajjaj was later appointed Governor of Iraq at Kufah in December 694 AD. He built a new capital at Wasit on River Tigris between Kufah and Basrah in order to assert better control. He sent an expedition in 698 AD under Muhallab Sufrah to recapture the regions of Karman and Faris in Persia from the militant Azraqi sect of Kharajites.
The Muslim State believed in total mobilisation of ‘All Believers’ to fight ‘Jihad’ against those who did not profess Islam.
This army, thereafter, also annexed Oman across the Persian Gulf in 699 AD. This same year Hajjaj also sent another Muslim Army under Abdal Rahman Ashath to capture Tukharistan (present day Uzhbekistan) but it was unsuccessful. In 705 AD, Hajjaj’s able general Qutaybah Muslim who was also the Governor of Khurasan region of Persia recaptured Lower Tukharistan (Balkh). Thereafter, he succeeded in annexing Sogdiana region including Bukhara and Samarkand by 712 AD, Khwarizm (Khiva region) by 713 AD, and Fargannah by 715 AD. The hitherto peaceful Buddhist population of this region who were of different Turkish clans got converted to Islam during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Ummar II (717 – 720 AD), who lifted the ‘Jizyah’ tax on convertees. Thereafter, these Turkish tribes became the most ardent fighting class, expansionists and propagators of Islam in the Muslim world. Muslim rule in Central Asia was further consolidated by the Arab general Nasr Sayyar who was appointed as the first Governor of this region by Caliph Hisham (724 – 743 AD).
He expanded Muslim rule to Kashgar in East Turkistan and Tashkand in Kazakhstan by 751 AD. The conversion of the people of present day Afghanistan to Islam from their Zoon (Sun) worship religion and Buddhism was accomplished by the Turki ruler Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (997-1030 AD) whose predecessors had come from the Khurasan Region of Persia. Hajjaj’s other accomplished general was his young son-in-law Muhammad Qasim Thaqqafi. In 710 AD, his army which included 6,000 crack Syrian cavalry, after subduing Makran, pushed on further into India proper and defeated King Dahir of Sindh at Rohri. He was aided by many rebellious local chiefs who had their axe to grind against King Dahir. Muhammad Qasim’s Army then exploited North up to Multan by 713 AD. What an irony it was that on the passing away of Hajjaj in June 714 AD, and that of Caliph Walid I in February 715 AD, the vindictive Sulayman Abdil Malik who was opposed to Hajjaj, became the Caliph. He had all of Hajjaj’s able generals who belonged to the Qaysite (North Arabian) faction imprisoned at Wasit, and later put to death.
Similarly in the West, the expansion and consolidation of Muslim rule was carried out by Musa Nusayr and his lieutenants. Before him, Qayrawan near present day Susa in Tunisia, which became the base for operations of the Muslims, had been established in 670 AD by Uqbah Nafi, a general of Muawiyah. Later, aided by a Muslim fleet, Hassan Numan Ghassani, who was the Governor of Egypt from 693 to 700 AD, captured Carthage in 698 AD from the Byzantines. He was succeeded by Musa Nusayr who was made the Governor of the separate African territories excluding Lower Egypt. He extended Arab control up to Tangier and converted the Berbers to Islam.
In 711 AD, Tariq, a lieutenant of Musa Nusayr crossed into Spain and conquered most of it (Andalusia), except for the small North Western mountainous portion of Asturia which withstood all assaults. Muslim expansion into France was checked between Tours and Poitiers in 732 AD by an army led by Charles Martel. The first Muslim coinage was struck in 695 AD in Damascus by Caliph Abdal Malik.
Main Reasons for the Success of the Muslim Armies
- The Muslim State believed in total mobilisation of ‘All Believers’ to fight ‘Jihad’ against those who did not profess Islam. They had no notion of any ‘fair play’, ‘justice’ or ‘basic human rights’ to be extended towards people who professed other religions.
- The Muslim State was usually fair in the distribution of booty won in war. 20 per cent of the spoils was immediately distributed amongst the soldiery and 80 per cent of the balance was sent to the Caliph’s treasury, to pay the annual salaries of soldiers and to meet other public expenses. Similarly in the settled territories, 20 per cent of the agricultural produce or value of traded goods was taken as tax. It was rewarding to be a Muslim.
- The standing Muslim soldiery was well paid. Even ordinary soldiers could afford to keep three to four slaves for their personal use.
- All those who died in battle were promised ‘Shuhadah’ and eternal bliss in ‘Seventh Heaven’, having unlimited luxuries and creature comforts. The families left behind were taken care of by a well enforced system of allocation of new and mutually acceptable husbands by the respective Mosque Committee of Elders, who enjoyed full state support. This was the basis of the origin of plural marriage in Islam.
- The Muslim rulers and generals always maintained an excellent system of spies to get timely and correct information about their adversaries. These spies were well rewarded and their identities kept secret. They were protected and also granted access.
- The Muslim armies were strong in cavalry and carried less baggage enabling them to move fast and always be on the offensive. Their leaders learned from their mistakes fast and excelled in being innovative to meet battlefield requirements.
- The Muslim rulers prepared thoroughly for their next campaign. For example, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II carried out secret preparations for two years for the capture of Constantinople in 1453 AD. He even managed to buy huge canons from the unsuspecting Christian Bulgar ruler in order to reduce the fortress walls.
- The Muslim armies enjoyed high morale and believed in having a ‘strong commander’ who took decisions. His orders were final and implicitly obeyed.
- The Muslims recovered strength after their defeats very fast. They could not be stopped with just one victory. They learned to use new war equipment and tactics fast.
- The Muslim armies were not afraid of being outnumbered. They fought best with what they had, and made good use of reinforcements even after the battle had started.
- The Muslims had faith in their martial capabilities and in the support of their God. They were not impressed or deterred by the past reputations of their opponents. They produced new champions as the occasion demanded. Their army was always inclusive.
Decline of the Muslim Empire
- The Muslim Caliphs became indulgent and luxury loving after three generations. Thereafter, they could not be assertive or prevent the steep decline in military power. When the Second Caliph had come to inspect the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem after its capture in 638 AD, the Christian Patriarch Sophronius was astonished to find him clad in such old raiment, that he was practically unrecognisable from anyone else.
- Because the Muslim Caliph could not trust even his own clansmen for his personal security, the practice of having outsiders as ‘Bodyguards’ started. The second, third and fourth Caliphs had fallen victim to assassins. But later on, these same Bodyguards and slaves of the Caliph began to wield authority and the Caliph became a prisoner.
- The Muslim State started the wrong practice of appointing a hereditary Chief Vizir, Chief Qadi and Governors of Provinces. This became a sure reason for future dilution of power of the Caliphs and for secessionist tendency to set in when central power waned.
- The Muslim standing army’s successful commanders were invariably thrown out of favour when the next Caliph came to power. In many cases they were even humiliated.
- The Muslim army’s system of having Divisions based on tribal affiliation, later on led to internecine fights in times of strife. Thereafter, one tribal Divisional commander stopped obeying an order if it came from another senior commander from another tribe.
- The Muslim armies and navies failed to keep up with technological advancements in warfare. Science and Technology, General Education and enhancement of manufacturing prowess became neglected aspects in the Muslim world in general.
- Religion and politics were closely interlinked in the system of Islamic governance. A stage came when greed and self interest became the prime motivating factors of the rulers, which led to Islam losing its purity and zeal, and politics becoming opportunistic.
- The quality of the leaders chosen to command troops started to decline when family influence became the criterion. This limited their ability to take right decisions.
The deep study of the characteristics of successful Muslim armies is very important for Indian military professionals, because we have Pakistan as our neighbour. Rulers there can unite the polity only when they wage war by overt and covert means onto the territory of Dar al Harab (non-Islamic region). On this important dogma, the views of the Sunnis and Shias are the same. But the Pakistanis forget all about Islam while dealing with the Chinese! Only a military victory on the scale of the Mamluk General Malik Zahir Baybar over the Mongols led by Kitbugha at Ayn Jalut (September 1260 AD) or of the Ottoman Turks’ over the Serbian coalition at Kosovo (June 1389) can prevent Pakistan from disintegrating! India should, therefore, learn to play a cool waiting game while augmenting its strength and must not fall prey to provocations by the Pakistan military.
1. Wikipedia and other Open Sources.
2. History of the Arabs by Phillip K Hitti, Macmillan, London, 1985.
3. Islam: A Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012.