Indian History Part 51: The Origins of Arab-Muslim Conquest


Canberra, 12 June 2016

The armies that burst out of the Arabian Peninsula with the message of the Prophet Muhammad and the initial teachings of a fledgling religion were numerically small, seldom more than 20,000 soldiers and often much smaller. However, they were a homogeneous group, fully comprised of Arabs who had embraced the new religion—Islam. The Arab soldiers were extremely hardy men, determined, highly motivated, and capable of covering great distances over rugged and inhospitable terrain at a rapid pace. These armies conquered major and established empires and their saga is full of tales of bravery and daring as well as of cruelty, destruction and even treachery.

The Arab conquest of the entire Middle-East and the areas around the Mediterranean had a major and irreconcilable impact on human history and was instrumental in shaping the world to what it is today. At the time of the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, the religion of Islam—and its adherents who were called Muslims—was confined to Arabic-speaking tribesmen living in Arabia and the fringes of the desert in Syria and Iraq. In the early years of the religion all Muslims were Arabs, and therefore the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Arab’ could be used interchangeably in the narrative of the early Islamic conquests. Even so, the corollary is not true; all Arabs were not Muslims. However, in the title of this chapter the terms are accordingly hyphenated. It is illustrative to note that in 632, there was a sizeable population of Christians in the region, especially in the Syrian Desert bordering the Byzantine Empire. Further, other than in Arabia, there were no Muslims anywhere else in the region and there were no Arabic speaking tribes or people outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Syrians spoke either Aramaic or Greek; Persian or Aramaic was the language in Iraq; Egyptians spoke Greek or Coptic; the residents of Iran spoke Pahlavi and Latin; and Greek or Berber were the preferred languages in the northern coast of Africa. The same was the case in Afghanistan, where there were no Muslims or Arab-speakers.

Within one century of the death of the Prophet Muhammad, all the countries and lands mentioned above as well as Spain, Portugal, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Sind in southern Pakistan were ruled by Arab-speaking Muslim elite and the local population had already started to convert to Islam. This scale and speed of the spread of a religion through conquest had never been seen before in history and has never been bettered or matched since. Only in Spain and Portugal was the spread of the religion reversed later over a period of centuries. In sharp contrast, Egypt which had an ancient and thriving culture of its own before embracing the new religion became a major centre of Arab culture and in recent times has even aspired to the leadership of the entire Arab world. In terms of the area subjugated, the victories of Alexander of Macedonia and the marauding raids of Genghis Khan that resulted in annexations match that of the Arab conquest. However, the fundamental difference is that the earlier conquerors did not leave behind any permanent effect on the lands they captured whereas the Muslim conquest brought with it a permanence in the effect that it had on the language, religion and culture of the lands that were overrun.

The Theme of War and Conquest

The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries carry two themes across the entire period, as a continuous and contiguous thread that join disparate episodes to create the broader premise of the Islamisation of the Middle-East and surrounding areas. The first theme is of the Arab-Muslim settlements that were aimed at the exploitation of the enormous resources that were captured during the wars and conflicts. This created a distinct differentiation of the Arab-Muslims from the ‘others’ who, even if Muslims, were mere converts from the conquered lands and therefore accorded a lower status. This distinction is visible in the Muslim world even today where non-Arab Muslims are considered of a lower strata in Islamic society. By forging an Arab-Muslim identity, the early Muslims were able to set themselves apart as an elite group and even claim that they were more virtuous than the Christians they were fighting against.

The second theme, which is perhaps more entrenched, is the creation of myths regarding the early Arab conquests. Since no accurate records were kept, and even the minimalist written accounts have been lost to antiquity, all available accounts of battles and skirmishes are the ones that have been passed down the ages through word of mouth and therefore suffer from flagrant embellishments. The inherent inaccuracies make them unreliable and therefore have to be discounted from consideration when pure history is being analysed. However, these stories do provide a sociological perspective of the times and also create an understanding of how the early Muslims reconstructed their past. They also provide an insight of how the Arabs spread their new religion into the areas that they had conquered, settled into, and now live in.

Although the Arabs claim a higher status within a classless religion, it must be noted that the backbone of the early Arab-Muslim armies that commenced the socio-religious conquest was constituted of Yemeni soldiers who lived in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. It was only much later, under the Abbasid Caliphs ruling from Baghdad that Turkish soldiers became the predominant military power within the Islamic armies. In a broad sweeping manner, it can be stated that the people of the Arabian Peninsula created a massive revolution in human history that remains unequalled. It is therefore necessary to investigate their origins and to understand the fundamental ethos that guided the men who effected such monumental changes.

The Early People of Arabia

Much of Arabia is desert although it varies greatly from place to place. Even though for an outsider the entire region may seem arid and a wasteland, for the local people it is a region of rolling hills and shifting sand dunes—not inhospitable but one that provided opportunity and was also dangerous in equal measure. The entire area was inhabited by Arabic-speaking nomads, traditionally referred to as Bedouin in English, used as an all-encompassing term. Arabs have been a permanent feature of the Great Desert and have been recorded as inhabiting the region by the Assyrians in early first millennium B.C. However, they were the ‘other’ for the more settled peoples of the Fertile Crescent. The writings of the Fertile Crescent mention the early Arabs but beyond that do not delve into their political history nor do they detail the interaction between the settled people and the nomadic and restless Arabs of the desert.

The first verifiable information of an Arab kingdom is regarding the one established by Queen Zenobia in 3rd century A.D. The kingdom was based around the trading city of Palmyra deep in the Syrian Desert and covered a major part of the current Middle-East. It is recorded that the Roman emperor Aurelian conquered the kingdom in 272 A.D., after a protracted campaign. Although Zenobia’s kingdom was relatively transitory, it provides the first demonstration of the ability of the Arab-speaking nomadic people to conquer and hold territory. By the 4th century, the Romans were ruling almost the entire Middle-East. Importantly it is also during this period that the Arabs started to be considered a separate group with their own identity, distinct from other local peoples and the Romans.

By the 6th century, the Fertile Crescent was dominated by two great empires—the Byzantine Empire in Syria and Palestine, and the Sasanian Persian Empire in Iraq. (The Fertile Crescent is the region in the Middle East which curves, in the shape of a quarter-moon, from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt beside the south-eastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran. In current usage, all definitions of the Fertile Crescent include Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; and the Levant, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.) Both had to content with the nomadic Arabs who inhabited the desert fringes of their territories and made occasional forays into the more settled areas. The Romans had managed to control and administer the conquered areas through the building of roads and forts and had also considered it a ‘shame’ to withdraw from captured territories. However, strict control and assured protection of rich cities and agricultural land from the depredations of the nomads needed the expenditure of a great amount of treasure and blood. Neither the Byzantines nor the Sasanians had the capacity to follow the Roman example. By 6th century, both the great powers of the Middle-East had turned to client kingdoms to control the nomadic Arabs—the Bedouin.

The Byzantines recruited the services of a powerful local dynasty—the Ghassanids whose chief had been bestowed the Greek title Phylarch. The Ghassanids were paid a subsidy to ensure that the Bedouin were managed and kept under control gradually becoming the intermediary between the Byzantine administration and the nomads. The Ghassanids themselves, already fairly influential, became rich under this arrangement and lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, but in great opulence. They also converted to Christianity and practised an obscure and separate sect that was considered heretical in Constantinople.

The Sasanians relied on the Lakhmids, who were a minor dynasty ruling a principality at the edge of the desert with their capital at Hira. They were also Christians but were more settled than the Ghassanids. The Lakhmids were patrons of early Arab literature and there is a high probability that the Arabic script was perfected in the Lakhmid court with the active support of their chief. By dealing with the Arabs as an independent entity, through the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids, the Byzantine and Sasanian empires created a conducive atmosphere for the emergence of a strong Arab identity. This was further entrenched by the development of the Arabic language and an overarching common culture amongst the Bedouin that became unifying factors.

The Bedouin

From very early times, there were two distinct types of Bedouin. One that relied on sheep and goats for survival, and since their livestock needed daily watering, stayed close to settled lands. Their mobility was restricted because of this fundamental requirement. The second group was camel-borne; and since a camel could go without water for as long as two weeks, this lot were completely independent and masters of their own will. They were the real nomads and considered the warrior aristocracy within the Arabs.

The Bedouin were politically organised into tribes, each tribe being theoretically descended from a single ancestor. This kinship created fierce tribal loyalty that was the motivating factor in the urge to fight and conquer. On the downside, kinship also led to unbridgeable inter-tribal rivalries that spanned and festered over generations. However, only the bonds of kinship protected an individual in the unimaginably harsh desert environment, a factor that contributed to making tribal loyalty very personal and intense. Although a person was born into a particular tribe, in practice men moved tribes to align themselves with the more successful groups. Such moves were invariably couched in terms of extended biological kinship with the new tribe to avoid any acrimony.

Each tribe was led by a Chief, traditionally called Sharif. The chief was chosen through a combination of elective and hereditary process. Every tribe had an acknowledged ruling family, which was extended to include brothers and cousins, from among whom a new chief was chosen when required. Although there was no formal election process, the choice of a new chief was determined by tribesmen offering loyalty to the most capable person within the ruling family. Inevitably, the informality of the process also led to internecine succession conflicts, especially within the larger tribes. The chief was essentially a war-leader and had to possess proven bravery and skill in battle. In addition, he also had to be a skilled negotiator to deal with imperial authorities, external tribes and to resolve internal quarrels. The chief also had to be knowledgeable regarding the vagaries of the desert like amount, time and areas of rainfall, availability of feed and a myriad other small and major factors that determined the prosperity or otherwise of the tribe. The chief kept an open tent, where all visitors would be fed and in return the travellers were required to share information regarding grazing, disputes, warfare and even the prevalent price of commodities. This was quid pro quo, and formed the basis of the famed Bedouin hospitality.

The Bedouin lived in tents and were the quintessential nomads, almost perpetually on the move. All adult male Bedouin were soldiers. Being in a constant state of movement, the Bedouin tribes left no paintings or buildings for posterity; in fact from an archaeological point of view they are almost totally invisible. The only information regarding the early Bedouin is available in the form of a genre of poetry called ‘Jahiliya’, which is a unique and complex art form that has been confirmed as being of pre-Islamic origin. The poets were influential and performed an important function through the construction of their poems. Their poems were the only vehicles available to build tribal solidarity and to preserve the reputation and history of the tribe for posterity.

‘The poetry is firmly set in the Bedouin’s desert environment. Much of it adheres to the fairly strict formula of the qasida, a poem of perhaps a hundred lines, spoken in the first person, describing the loves and adventures of the poet, the excellence of his camel, the glories of his tribe or patron. He is brave and fearless, naturally, he can endure great hardships, he has admirable self-control and he is an irresistible lover and great hunter. Poets are often subversive, even outlaw characters, seducing other men’s wives with shameless enthusiasm, and they often see themselves as loners, one man and his camel against the world. There is no sign of formed religion, no mention of a deity, just the power of blind fate, the threatening beauty of the desert landscape.’

Hugh Kennedy,

The Great Arab Conquests, pp. 40-41

The Southern Peninsula

The south of the Arabian Peninsula, the highlands of Yemen and Oman, had settled communities since there was sufficient rainfall to permit cultivation. This is in sharp contrast to the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin who travelled the rest of the peninsula at will. Not surprisingly, the southerners developed a distinctly different political tradition from that of the Bedouin. In the first millennium B.C. they established lasting kingdoms that built stone temples, fortresses and palaces while also developing a script used in monuments which recorded the activities of the elite. The society was sufficiently advanced to have been well-structured and to have a system to collect taxes. They also built the massive Marib dam to collect and harvest rainwater, which was then distributed through channels to create artificial oasis. The rulers also appointed administrators to enforce the law and built a string of fairly prosperous merchant cities on the edge of the Yemeni desert.

Even though these kingdoms flourished in the early part of their existence, by the time Prophet Muhammad had started to preach his religion in the 6th century, the glory days of the Yemeni/Omani kingdoms were over. The last inscription of the ancient kingdom of Himyar is dated 559. Late in the 6th century the Marib dam was breached and reduced the southern kingdoms to little more than small holdings with little power. This was a turning point in medieval Arab history.

Harnessing Bedouin Military Power

The hilly areas of the Hijaz in western Arabia was dotted with small commercial and agricultural towns of which Mecca and Medina were two of the more prominent ones. From about the year 500, the region started to mine precious metals that directly increased its prosperity. On the back of the mining boom, at least some of the Bedouin also became rich in the traditional sense of the word. Gradually Mecca became the most important trading post in the region. Simultaneously a shrine grew around an ancient black meteorite stone, nurtured by the belief that the shrine had been built by Abraham. The religious significance attracted people and an area around the shrine became neutral ground where violence was prohibited and members of different tribes could meet to conduct business in a relatively peaceful manner. Bedouin from far and wide came to the shrine, intimately connecting trade and basic religious belief.

By the end of the 6th century, the shrine and surrounds were managed by a tribe called Quraysh. The Quraysh were not nomads but lived in Mecca, organising caravans to Syria and becoming experienced leaders in trade, travel and negotiations. Thus began the subtle and symbiotic relationship between nomads and merchants with some Bedouin tribes subsequently having both nomadic and settled merchant branches within them. In a nuanced appreciation of the realities of the time, the adherents of the nomadic tradition generally accepted the political leadership of the more settled branch of the tribe. For their part, the settled elite were always in awe of the military prowess of the true Bedouin. They also understood very clearly that if managed properly, the military skill of the Bedouin could be a great asset and if permitted to grow unchecked it could become a threat, capable of creating disruption and mayhem. The symbiosis of settled political leadership and the raw military power of the nomads was the foundations of the armies that effected the early Arab-Muslim conquests. At the same time, the Hijazis had turned themselves into an elite who would go on to control an emerging empire.

It is unnecessary to elaborate on Prophet Muhammad’s life or his teachings at this juncture, since they will be superfluous for the understanding of this narrative. A brief overview to place them within the context of this narrative is given in the box below.

Prophet Muhammad and the Religion of Islam

Muhammad was born into a Quraysh family around 570. In his youth he is said to have made trading expeditions to Syria and also that while there discussed religious matters with Syrian Christian monks. His early life is couched in pious legend and the stories that have been passed down over the centuries are unreliable. Around 600, he began to preach a religion of strict monotheism with a simple message—there was only one God Allah and Muhammad was his messenger, passing on the word of God brought to him by the Angel Gabriel. He also preached the concept of the souls being judged after death with the virtuous being send to heaven and the wicked to hell, also providing graphic explanations of what heaven and hell meant.

As is normal with any powerful but different message being propagated, the Prophet and his message attracted both followers and enemies. In Mecca he started to become unpopular with entrenched families and in 622 when matters were coming to a head, he was invited by the people of Medina, about 320 kilometres to the north of Mecca, to mediate between some feuding tribes. Accordingly, Muhammad travelled to Medina with a small group of followers. The journey came to be described as a ‘hijra’, an emigration; the group of followers became ‘muhajirun’; and the supporters in Medina came to be named ‘ansar’ or helpers. The year 622, the year of the emigration, was later proclaimed as the beginning of the Islamic era. The hijra marks the transformation of Muhammad from lonely prophet to the ruler of a small, but expanding state, with all the political manifestations that it entailed.

Among the muhajirun were Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, the first three successors of the Prophet and also his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Muhammad was always a warrior while also being both a prophet and a judge. Therefore, his teachings were spread through a combination of conflict or military power projection and preaching, a tradition that continues to endure to the current day in the spread of Islam.

The Quraysh in Mecca, alarmed at the growing influence of Muhammad, wanted to crush the fledgling religious movement. Attacks were carried out and battles fought between 624 and 630. In 624, the Muslims from Medina defeated the Meccans at a battle near the well of Badr and in 626, the Meccans won a significant victory at Uhud. In 627, Medina itself was attacked, but the Muslims prevailed in the Battle of the Khandaq (meaning trench). A truce was enacted in 628 at Hudaybiya and in 630, Prophet Muhammad occupied Mecca, being accepted by the local aristocracy as the spiritual and political authority of the emerging new state. Between 630 and the year of his death in 632, his fame and influence spread across the Arabian Peninsula.

By 632, all the Arabian tribes were sending delegations to Mecca accepting Muhammad’s overlordship and paying tribute to the state that he controlled and adhering to his teachings. This was the beginning of the Islamic Empire.

Early Arab-Muslim Military Campaigns

Muhammad’s own military campaigns were the beginning of Muslim conquests and sanctified the use of military forces as an important element in the protection of the new religion and, more importantly, its expansion. In the early stages of its spread there was no visible trend of pacifism and the history of the religion is a story of his military campaigns—either led personally by the Prophet himself, or conducted under his instructions under the command of one of his subordinates. Prophet Muhammad introduced the important concept of jihad or Holy War in his teachings. Ever since, the interpretation of this concept has remained a source of continuous controversy among the Muslims. Arguments for and against the conduct of this Holy War, especially when directed against non-Muslims, abound even today in both common discussions and learned theological debate. Muhammad also used diplomacy and the network of contacts from his own powerful family as well as from the tribes that gathered around him to further spread his teachings.

Along with the development of the ideology of conquest to spread the new religion, an elite group supporting it also emerged. This group, which was the inner circle of the Prophet, was capable of directing both the military and political aspects of the growing empire while also combining them optimally when required. This group was drawn exclusively from the men who had undertaken the hijra to Medina in 622. The first three caliphs to follow the Prophet—Abu Bakr (632-34), Umar (634-44), and Uthman (644-56)—who successfully directed the initial conquests, were all muhajirun. In the early days, Muhammad’s influence was spread as much by conquest as through peaceful means. By the 630s, almost all tribes were paying tribute/taxes to the political establishment headed by the Prophet in Medina. His death brought into focus the veracity of these allegiances with many tribal leaders considering that the commitment was a personal and bilateral contract between them and the Prophet. This belief helped the further development of the idea that they could continue to be Muslims without having to acknowledge the political power and religious authority of the leadership in Medina.

In eastern Arabia the tribe of Banu Hanifa of Yamama asserted their independence through the establishment of their own prophet called Masalama. Similarly some tribes of the north-east chose to follow a prophetess called Sajab. Essentially these were movements rejecting the overarching political authority of Medina and not the concept of Islam itself.

The Succession Struggle

When Prophet Muhammad died in 632, the fate of the fledgling Islamic project hung in the balance. Almost immediately, the rift between the ansars in Medina and the Quraysh in Mecca, held under check for some time, came into the open with the ansar wanting independent control of Medina without external interference.

Umar, pre-empted the widening of the rift by pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr, who was well-respects by all parties, and bestowing the title of Khalifat Allah on him. The Arabic word ‘Khalifa’ is the origin of the English word ‘Caliph’, a title by which early Islamic rulers and the state (Caliphate) was known in the West. In Arabic, the Caliph was formally called Amir al-muminin, the Commander of the Faithful.

By pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr, Umar not only avoided a split in the Islamic world at the very beginning of its inception, but also established four facts that focused the religion and the political empire towards further expansion. First, a single successor to the previous leader would lead the entire community; second, this leader would be from the muhajirun; third, Mecca would be the religious focus; and fourth, political power would be based in Medina. The first two Caliphs directed the great Arab-Muslim conquests from Medina.

The new leadership in Medina did not lose any time in declaring that no one could be a true Muslim unless they paid taxes and declared their allegiance to Medina. This set in motion the events that led to the great Arab-Muslim conquest of the Middle-East. With ruthless efficiency the leadership enforced this writ, crushing the Banu Hanifa rebellion followed by other minor ones in southern Syria. This forceful action was enabled by the assistance of the Bedouin of the Hijaz and western Arabia who remained loyal to the leadership in Medina. After the defeat of the Banu Hanifa, the Arab-Muslim army went on to raid Iraq, the core of the Sasanian Empire. Similarly the army that quelled the minor rebellions in southern Syria went on to conquer the entire state of Syria. This marked the first stage of the wider Islamic conquest of the region. The dynamics of these first conquests set the foundation for the future and perhaps the most rapid conquering run the world has ever seen.

The Bedouin, who now formed the core of the Arab-Muslim army, had traditionally lived off raiding neighbouring tribes and other settlements. However, a fundamental principle of early Islam was that Muslims would not attack each other. The ‘Ummah’ was an ever expanding tribe that formed a defensive group, which meant that the Bedouin, newly minted Muslims, could not raid each other or other Muslims. (‘Ummah’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘community’. It is different and distinguished from the word ‘Sha’b’, which means a nation with common ancestry or geography. Thus, in a broad manner ‘ummah’ can be considered to mean a supra-national community with a shared history. The word is also considered a synonym for ‘ummat al-Islamiyah’ meaning the Islamic Community and is used in contemporary writings to indicate the collective community of Islamic peoples.) Since the Bedouin could not now raid each other or the settled communities who were also Muslims, it meant abandoning their traditional nomadic way of life, which had supported them for centuries. Peace in Arabia was anathema to the Bedouins.

The new Islamic leadership was faced with a stark choice. On the one hand, they could prohibit all warlike activities and let the infant Islamic polity disintegrate into the original warring constituents, which would mean that the anarchic pre-Muhammad days would return. On the other hand, they could lead the Bedouin against the non-Muslim world outside the immediate Arabian Peninsula and the desert margin. For the leadership in Medina, now in control of almost all tribes in Arabia, the choice was easy—they opted to let loose the Bedouin against the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. The leadership, successively of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, was astute; they avoided religious and political implosion by crafting an explosion.

Any tribe that accepted the religious and political authority vested in the Caliph at Medina was permitted to join the marauding army, with the prospect of great pillage and plunder. The armies that were despatched did not have any traditional camp-followers of families and slaves, meaning that only fighting men went out on the expedition. Only after the conquest of a place did the families join the army and set themselves up separately as the ruling elite. This was not a migration by nomadic Bedouin tribesmen, but a well-crafted and centrally controlled occupation. The number of soldiers in each of these army groups were small, normally being between 3500 and 6000 fighting men.

The Early Arab-Muslim Armies

There is only scant information regarding the early Arab-Muslim armies, gleaned from incidental mention in narratives and poetry that, by their very nature, cannot be considered fully reliable. However, it is certain that they did not have any technological advantage over their adversaries and were mainly equipped with simple, but effective personal weapons. It is also certain that individual soldiers provided their own equipment and mounts. This procedure made military equipment a much sought after booty, after the defeat of an adversary army or the conquest of a town. The soldiers also catered for their own food and clothing, thereby creating an army that was not hampered in its manoeuvring capability by having to bring cumbersome supply trains. Swift progress was almost an imperative on the march and the Arab armies covered great distances over rugged and inhospitable terrain with relative ease. In winters, these armies cultivated land and at other times lived off the land.

The principal weapon of the soldier was the sword—not the curved scimitar associated with the warriors of the Middle-East in popular imagination, but broad, straight and double-edged, about a meter in length and carried on straps around the shoulders, not on belts at the hip. Swords were expensive and treated as precious possessions, given names, extolled and celebrated in poetry and handed down as heirlooms from generation to generation in larger warrior families. There is also some mention that the best swords were imported from India. The cavalry also used a light bow, but the spear was predominantly the weapon of the infantry. Chain-mail armour was known, but only very few were in use in the early days. They were extremely expensive and valuable and beyond the reach of even some of the elite leadership. The army relied on horses and camels to improve its mobility as well as for swift reconnaissance and to gain tactical advantage.

In the early conquests, most of the fighting was done dismounted, probably because of a lack of stirrups that would have made horseback riding a difficult art to perfect. By the beginning of the 8th century, paintings show stirrups, although the exact date of their invention cannot be determined. It is certain that the introduction of the stirrups facilitated long-range raids, particularly advantageous to the rapidly moving Arab armies. The small numbers in the army groups could be attributed to the Bedouin trait of not readily accepting strict personal discipline, which is a fundamental requirement for the successful performance of a large army. However, the Bedouin, as an individual, was perhaps the best soldier of the time, accustomed to bear great hardship, extremely mobile, ferocious and brimming with individual courage. The Arab armies of the 8th century also adapted the swing-beam artillery that was already in use with the Roman and Persian armies.


The early Arab-Muslim armies neither possessed any secret weapons and nor did they have access to emerging military technology. Their advantage lay in their extreme mobility, focused leadership and most importantly on individual fighting prowess and motivation that led to very high morale. These are intangible qualities that can make even an average group perform exemplary feats of bravery and warfighting on the battlefield. This situation was further improved by their religious zeal brought about by the firm belief that they were following God’s direct orders, a feeling carefully inculcated in the rank and file by the leadership. The religious nature of the armies was reinforced by describing the dead soldiers as shuhada, meaning martyrs—a term first used to describe those who died in the Battle of Badr in 624. According to the religious teachers, all martyrs went to paradise. [In recent times the term has been used to describe all kinds of people who die even without a remote connection to the original concept and has become debased in its meaning by careless and ignorant common usage.]

In the early Arab-Muslim armies, being a Muslim was not the reason for waging war and fighting to the death. The inherent bravery essentially emanated from the pride in the tribe and being an Arab. The honesty and austerity of the Arab, which was a matter of great pride, was pitted against the opulence and the decadent lifestyle of their perceived enemies. Religion was but one, almost insignificant, factor in the entire equation. The yearning for individual fame and glory, buttressed by an equal or even higher yearning for booty—the riches obtained in conquest in terms of money, portable goods and slaves—was the predominant force in making these armies almost invincible, not some altruistic religious principle as has been made out in later-day accounts.

By mid-8th century, the emerging Arab-Islamic state was being led by men possessed of great military skills, proven battlefield leadership, ideological conviction and political astuteness. This is an almost unbeatable combination with which to embark on a global campaign of conquest and expansion. The leadership of the nascent ‘ummah’ was acutely aware that they would either have to conquer or collapse. There was only one reasonable choice—conquest. In a little over a century after the death of Prophet Muhamad, the Arab-Muslim Empire spanned the entire Middle-East and expanded to the size that remained stable for the next 300 years—a conquest that must be counted amongst the epoch-making changes in human history.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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