THE EARLY MUSLIM ARABS (Part I): Origins, Unification and Warfare


The expansion of the Islamic Caliphate. The deeper color notes the initial expansion of Islam under Muhammad.
By Periklis Deligiannis
The Arabs are one of the two main contemporary populations of the Semitic ethno-linguistic group (the Jews being the other one). The other modern populations who constitute that group are the Jews and the Semitic-speaking peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia. However the latter are of Kushite origins. The cradle of the ancient Arabs is the extensive Peninsula still bearing their name (other theories place their cradle in southern Mesopotamia or Armenia). The northern Arabs – the inhabitants of the central and northern Arabian Peninsula – were a nomadic people with mainly livestock economy, who used to raid neighboring countries. Their language became the basis of the later classic Arabic. The southern Arabs whose language differed from the Northern Arabian one, were a settled people living in Southwestern Arabia, with a mixed agriculture and livestock economy. Since the beginnings of the first millennium BC, they developed a remarkable ancient culture (kingdoms of the Sabaeans [Saba, ‘Sheba’], of the Himyarites and others). The pre-Islamic Arabian religion was polytheistic and quite resembled the religions of other Semitic peoples.

Due to the Islamic domination in the countries of the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia), the Arabs assimilated the preexisting Semitic peoples, namely the Aramaeans, the Canaanites/Phoenicians, the descendants of the Assyro-Babylonians and others who almost all of them spoke the Aramaic language which completely dominated this region from the 2nd century B.C. and was much akin to Arabic. On the other hand, the modern Arabs of North Africa are not Semitic in origin in their overwhelming majority, being Arabicized descendants of Hamites, namely Egyptians and Libyans/Berbers (the latter in Libya and the Maghreb). However the Hamites are the closest relatives of the Semites and the Hamitic peoples have fully adopted the Arabic language and customs: the only exception are the Berbers of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali and a few other West African countries that have maintained their Hamitic language and customs but are profoundly influenced by the Arabic culture. The Arabs of Sudan, Mauritania, Mali, Zanzibar and other countries are mainly descendants of Arabicized Kushites, Berbers and black Africans.

The Arabs were well known in the Greco-Roman and the Iranian world. Several of their tribes migrated and settled in the Fertile Crescent before the Muslim conquest (until the 6th century AD). Such Arabic peoples were the Ituraeans, Saphaites (possibly a tribal offshoot of the Sabaeans), Nabataeans, Emeseni (of Emesa), Palmyrans, Hirani (of Hira), Gassanids, Lakhmids and others. After all, the Aramaic tribes who had settled in early Antiquity in the same area are considered by some scholars as proto-Arabic colonizers (I do not share this view although the Aramaeans were akin to the Arabs). In other cases, the existing Semitic tribes fused with the Arab newcomers giving them their tribal name, as in the case of the Aramaean Edomites (of Edom) who were Arabicized and became known as Idumaeans (a Hellenized version of the Aramaean “Edom”).





By  Periklis    Deligiannis

sassanian  cavalry

sassanian cavalry 2
A reconstruction of a Sassanian medium cavalryman by Ardeshir Radpour. He bears a mail cuirass, a helmet of composite structure with mail visor adopted by the Romans as well, forearm-guard plates, light lance, a composite bow of the Sacian type (heritage from the Parthian predecessors of the Sassanids) and a cavalry sword (Image by  Ardeshir  Radpour).


The infantry (and partly cavalry) of the Qadisini and the ‘Immortals’ are also mentioned in the medieval sources (mainly Byzantine) as parts of the Sassanid army. The Qadisini were the Arabo-Aramaic people of Qadisiya (in Arabic), a Semitic region subject to the Persians in modern Western Iraq. The ‘Immortals’ (Varhranigan khvaday in Iranian) were the elite corps of the Persian army, the palace guard of the Great King, corresponding to the homonymous personal guard of the ancient Achaemenid kings of Persia. Xerxes’ ‘Immortals’ had fought against the Greeks in 480-479 BC without success. The Sassanian Empire, claiming steadily the whole Achaemenid heritage had reestablished this unit. Another unit under the direct orders of the Sassanid monarch was called ‘self-sacrificing heroes’. One of the commanders of this unit was of Byzantine origin. This possibly indicates that they were mercenaries or foreign fugitives sheltered by the Persians.




By  Periklis    Deligiannis

A reenactment of a Sassanian horseman by Ardeshir Radpour. Note the common elements of his helmet with the Roman helmets of the Persian group in my article ON THE HELMET TYPES OF THE LATE ROMAN CAVALRY, mainly the strong backing in the eyebrow area and the composite construction. The Romans added cheek-protectors to the original Persian type. Note also the  mail visor of this  helmet (Image by Ardeshir  Radpour).

The Sassanids or Sassanians were a Persian priestly dynasty of Fars (Pars, Persis, the cradle of the Persians) who in 224-226 AD overthrew the Arsacid  royal dynasty of the Parthians and occupied the whole Parthian Kingdom thus turning it into Sassanid Kingdom. The Sassanid Empire was stronger than the Parthian, relying on a strong and large army. In this way, the Sassanians successfully dealt with a number of powerful enemies at their borders, mainly the Kushans (Tokharians), the Romans/Byzantines and the Hunnish tribes, especially the dangerous Ephthalites. The empire was maintained until the early 7th century, when a suicidal war of King Khosroes II against the Byzantines brought its exhaustion. Thereby when the armies of Islam appeared on the western border of the Sassanid Kingdom, its exhausted and dwindling army was almost unable to repel the invaders. By 649 AD, the whole Sassanid territory except the small Daylami country, was conquered by the Arabs and the last Sassanid prince took refuge in China of the Tang Dynasty. There the renowned Persian dynasty faded away from home. Later the Daylami people became Muslim as well.
Like their predecessors the Parthians, the Sassanid Persians relied heavily on cavalry. However they did not commit the same error as the first who ‘annihilated’ the role of the infantry. Generally, their army was more aggressive and more effective comparing to the Parthian.



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By  Periklis    Deligiannis

Walls of Constantinople

The Walls of Constantinople today.

In 661 AD, the new caliph Muawiyah (Muāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān AD 602–680)became the absolute master of the Islamic-Arab Caliphate after the murder of his antagonist, Ali. He made Damascus the Arabic capital, while Syria became the new political center of the Islamic world. The advanced peoples of Syria-Palestine and Egypt were the main supporters of the new Ummayad Dynasty (AD 661-750) of caliphs founded by Muawiyah. The new caliph based his power on the old Byzantine administrative officials, because the Arabs had not yet the required experience in governance issues. The Ummayad Caliphate had its political-administrative center in former Hellenistic Syria and used the Greek of the former Byzantine rule as its administrative language (and also used the Greek/Byzantine administrative infrastructure), thereby closely resembled to a more extensive Seleucid Kingdom. The main politico-military supporters of the Ummayads were the pre-Islamic local Arabs of Syria and Palestine (the Arab tribes of the Ituraeans, Palmyrans, Gasanids and others), who had become Muslims.
After the proclamation of Muawiyah as caliph, the Arab forces moved again against Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire), following two directions of attack. A portion of them was carrying out devastating raids in Asia Minor, while another portion attacked the Byzantine Exarchate of Africa (modern NW Africa). One by one the Byzantine fortresses and the (Berber) tribes of the Numidians, Mauri and Maurusians were subjugated by the Arab invaders.