The war council of the Muslims before the battle of Badr (624) in a Persian picture of 1314. The Arabs are correctly depicted as nomadic light cavalry, armed with spears, swords and almost no armor.
The subjugation of powerful Mecca to the Muslim state impressed the northern Arab tribes, and thereby many of them embraced Islam. Those tribes who did not accept the new faith marched against Muhammad, who confronted them in the battle of Hunayn (630). Although a part of his army was defeated and dissolved, he and his veterans managed to repel their opponents, eventually reversing the situation in favor of the Muslim army and finally defeating the enemy. The Muslim state was extended to Yemen and the shores of the Persian Gulf (mostly in modern Oman), generally including the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of 630, Muhammad led 30,000 warriors to the borders of Byzantine Syria making alliances with the tribes of the Arabo-Syrian desert: it was a portent of the coming Arabic invasion in the Byzantine territory.
Two years later, Muhammad died in Yathrib and his death led many Arab tribal leaders to revolt against Muslim power. Thus the “War of Secession” started. In 632-633 the aforementioned General Khalid ibn al Walid (see part I) who was converted to Islam, marched against the rebellious tribes, defeating them one by one and consolidating the integrity of the state. Khalid who was nicknamed “the sword of God” evolved to the most formidable Muslim general of the 7th century. Meanwhile, Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s father-in-law) was elected as successor of Muhammad and Caliph of the believers (political, religious and military leader of all Muslims), an election that was strongly contested by the supporters of Ali, the Prophet’s favorite son-in-law. The controversy over this election became ‘eternal’, later leading to the deeper schism of the Islamic world: the religious division between Sunnis (the descendants of the supporters of Abu Bakr) and Shia (descendants of the supporters of Ali).
ARAB and MUSLIM WARFARE OF THE 2nd quarter of the 7th century
Considering the warfare of the early Islamic armies till the middle 7th century, the cavalry was their main weapon. All wealthy Arabs, nomadic or sedentary, dwelling in villages or oases fought as horsemen, using mainly spear and sword. The sedentary Arabs used to send their sons in nomadic tribes to learn the martial art. The infantry was numerous enough before 638 AD and included swordsmen – sometimes bearing mail cuirass – javeliners, archers, slingers and a few spearmen. The Yemeni javeliners were renowned as armed escorts for trade caravans.
Until the Battle of Hunayn (630), those of the Muslim infantry that came from nomadic tribes, were moving on the battlefield on camels without using them in the conflict. After 630, all infantry was moving on camels, while several camel-riders acted as reconnaissance units. A typical Arabian battle formation included the infantry divided into the center of the formation and the two wings, while the cavalry was fighting freely or in a supportive role.
The Arab tactics were significantly depended on the effort to outflank the enemy army using the cavalry. On the contrary, the infantry rarely attacked but it tried to repel the enemy attacks till the end. However concerning specifically the Muslims, there were many cases of infantry officers or common warriors who used to attack alone the enemy, brandishing the banners of Islam and seeking their death in order to become martyrs of the faith.
After the conquest of territories outside the Arabic homelands, many Arabs staffed the “Jund”, that is to say the ‘permanent service troops’. The “Jund” Muslim soldiers (they could not no longer classified as “warriors”), almost all of them being cavalry, were based on large camps established in the conquered territories. Those camps controlled the conquered countries and at the same time they isolated the Arab warriors from the locals – who supposedly were not as capable fighting men as the former – in order for the former not to lose their martial prowess. But in reality, over time the ‘Jund’ Arabs widely intermarried with the indigenous peoples and most took native women as wives. After 638, numerous arms, armors and horse herds were acquired as booty by the Muslims and were delivered to the infantry. In this way, most infantrymen joined the “Jund” cavalry.
After 640, the cavalry was the majority of the Islamic troops while the numbers and importance of the infantry was limited. The army camels were carrying supplies and combatants being particularly useful in long campaigns. The Arab horsemen and cavalrymen were riding them during the march, in order not to tire their horses which they were riding almost only in battles. Camels have an inexhaustible strength against hunger, thirst and long marches. They could traverse very long distances without often stopping to rest and be fed, thereby providing a significant tactical advantage to the Arab troops against their enemies. With those marching methods, the Arab warriors reached Mauritania (modern Morocco) and Gaul in the West, and India and the borders of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the East.
The Iranians (Sassanid Persians, Medes, surviving Parthians and others) were the first non-Arab combatants who joined the armies of Islam. Many Iranian aristocrats, fighting as Clibanarii cavalrymen bearing their characteristic heavy metallic armor of rider and horse, and fighting with lance, sword, mace and bow, embraced Islam during the fall of the Sassanian Empire after the battle of Qadisiya. They were called “Asawira” in Arabic (a term derived from the corresponding Iranian “Asavaran” for these nobles) and their ultimate aim was to keep their property and privileges under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate.
Additionally, many Daylami bodyguards of the Sassanid king and of various other officials joined the Muslim armies, although the small Daylami country was almost the only region of the former Sassanid Kingdom not conquered by the Arabs (but later it was absorbed by the Caliphate). The warlike Daylami were a native pre-Iranian people of the small mountain area in the southwest coast of the Caspian Sea, who in the 7th century were already Iranianized and had an unbeatable infantry. Due to their martial prowess, the Daylami managed to become the bodyguards of the Sassanian king replacing the old ‘Immortal’ elite guards. The Arabs eagerly recruited the Asavaran/Asawira and the Daylami in their armies. Later the Daylami played an important historical role in the Iranian countries and in India, constantly providing elite soldiers for Islam and finally establishing their own dynasties.
The pre-Islamic Arabs were not a seafaring people, apart from a few exceptions. Later, when the Muslims gained territorial outlets to the Mediterranean, they used the navies of the former Byzantine provinces of Egypt, Syria, North Africa (Ifriqiya), Sicily, Crete, which included warships and other vessels almost of the same type as the Byzantine ones. Initially their crews were natives while the marines were usually Arabs.
A Sassanid Clibanarius bearing the characteristic heavy metallic armour of rider and horse. The Iranians supplied the Muslims with a high quality heavy cavalry which along with the pre-existing Arabian light cavalry, produced an irresistible equestrian fighting force.
Concerning morphological anthropology, the original morphological type of the Arabs was the Eastern Mediterranean phylum (aka “Orientalid”) with a small presence of the so-called Urartian (formerly known as “Armenoid”, “Near Eastern” or “Eastern Alpine”). The Urartian morphological phylum must not be confused with the ancient Urartian people or the Urartian language: it was just conventionally named after the ancient kingdom of Urartu because the latter’s geographical area was probably the cradle of this anthropological type. In the Fertile Crescent, the Arabs came to extensive intermarriage with the Urartian-type natives who gradually also flooded the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabicized Egyptians did not significantly differ from the Arabs, belonging mainly to the same Eastern Mediterranean (Orientalid) anthropological phylum. However, Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta) had significant Urartian presence since the 2nd millennium BC. The Arabicized Berbers of northwest Africa are rather distant morphological relatives of the Egyptians and the Arabs, belonging to the Atlanto-Mediterranean phylum of the Greater Mediterranean morphological group (‘race’) and secondarily to the European Mediterranean phylum, to the Alpine and others.
The main fighting advantage of the Muslim army was the religious fanaticism of the Holy war (“Jihad”) which led many of its warriors to fight defying death, thinking only Muhammad’s words for their posthumous reward in Paradise. Additionally, the Arabs greatly improved their warfare and tactics, often learning a lot from the military tradition of the peoples that they conquered or confronted. The Romans also followed this policy in warfare. Finally, the early Muslim Arabs were fortunate enough to have many talented commanders such as Khalid, Aamr, Muawiyah and others.