Why was the Islamic expansion successful?

So, following on from my last post, I thought I’d talk a bit about the historical circumstances that made the Muslim army so successful.

To put this in context, the Muslim military apparatus conquered territory from the tip of Spain to the Oxus river in just over a century.  This beat the old record for conquest set by Alexander the Great’s army, and their massive, military record would hold until the incursion of the Mongolians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  (Yes, historians really do consider conquests as record-setting or not record-setting.  We’re very sad people.)

Much like the Mongolians several centuries later, much of the surprise expressed by the indigenous people the Muslims conquered (and much of their success, as we’ll discuss in a minute) stemmed from the relatively under-developed nature of their army.  Arabian tribes had offered support forces for both the Byzantines and the Persians, but the Arabian peninsula had little by way of military structure.  The Yemeni had a kingship that predates Islam and which was quickly integrated into the Muslim army, with many of the troops who invaded Syria and Egypt being identified in contemporary sources as Yemeni, but central Arabia was made up of small cities linked by caravan trade routes and nomadic tribes.  By comparison, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanian empires both had standing armies, which were paid a regular wage, trained regularly, and following a precise military structure.

So from the point of view of many of the indigenous communities of Christians, Jews, Persians, and Manicheans who experienced the Islamic expansion in the Near East, two massive standing armies were brought down by some tribal guys on horseback.  How did they do it?

Well, according to both Muslim and Christian sources, the answer is God.  For the Muslims, their victory was a sign of God’s blessing on Muhammad’s message (peace be upon him).  For Christians, it was a sign of divine Wrath, often blamed on the sectarianism and factionalism that had defined Near Eastern Christianity for most of the last three centuries.

Now, as a historian, I can neither confirm nor deny divine intervention as a cause because I’ve never had the chance to interview God.  But there were three other factors that, while probably not obvious to either the Muslims or the conquered Christians at the time, do appear to have played a major role, namely:

1.) That the Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars;

2.) That the Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program; and

3.) That Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

To break it down:

The Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars

Okay, this gets a little confusing, so stay with me.  It all started with a coup in Persia.  In the late sixth century, the Byzantines and the Persians had been at war for a while, but after a particularly bad loss by the Persians, their army overthrew the shah, Hormizd IV, with the help of his son, Khosrau II.  The army then refused to crown Khosrau, favoring their general, Bahram, instead.  Khorsau somehow fled to the Byzantine court of Emperor Maurice, and despite the two having just been at war with one another, Maurice agreed to help re-install Khosrau as shah, presumably because he thought he could make Persia into a principality in the process, essentially under his control.  The second coup was successful, and Khosrau became shah.

However, the Byzantine senate had voted against supporting Khosrau, and even though it ended the war and resulted in the return of much of the territory of Armenia to Byzantium (the area from which much of the Byzantine army came), they were still dissatisfied with Maurice’s rule. Maurice then turned his attention to the Balkans, and spent two decades bankrupting the empire in an attempt to hold the Danube.  After a particularly bad winter, the troops at the Danube mutinied, and rather than bargaining with them or executing them, Maurice, for some reason, sent them back into the field, at which point they claimed that he had gone mad and called for their general, Phocas, to remove him.  Phocas happily obliged them, and was initially welcomed into Constantinople on the agreement that he would lower taxes, but he couldn’t do so and still pay his men, so the city ended up revolting against him.  Worse, Khosrau had formally ‘adopted’ Maurice as kin out of gratitude for supporting him, and claimed Maurice’s murder as a personal slight, taking the opportunity to invade Byzantium again.

There followed another two decades of fighting, in the midst of which, Islam began (indeed, Muhammad (s’lm) was supposedly born in the Year of the Elephant, when Yemeni troops aligned with Byzantium invaded Mecca and the surrounding area on war elephants in order to drive off the Persian-aligned locals).  The fighting seriously disseminated both armies – the Byzantine army was already bankrupt from the invasion of the Balkans, and largely survived only because a Tunisian aristocrat called Heraclius brought a personal army across North Africa, pushed back the Persians, and managed to end the rioting in Constantinople and get his son, also called Heraclius, installed as emperor.  Persia had additional problems due to their strict caste system, which was designed to maintain the wealth of their aristocracy, making it difficult for the shah to raise enough in taxes to pay the army.

Thus, the Muslim army pushed north into a Syria and Palestine which had already suffered decades of fighting, changing hands, military occupation, and heavy taxation, and faced off against two armies that were barely holding their own.  Which leads to the second factor…

The Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program

So now a small number of Yemeni soldiers and nomadic horsemen were invading Palestine.  The local armies were in pretty bad shape, and the Muslims clearly had some strong generals – they struck a decisive victory over the Byzantines in the Battle of Yarmuk.  Indeed, part of their success many have stemmed from the Byzantines and Persians underestimating them and still being preoccupied with each other.  Who’s going to worry about the Arabian horsemen when you have an entire battalion camped out over the hill?  By the standard rules of invasion, they should have been confined to the Near East, at best.  They had no supply lines back to Arabia, Arabia wasn’t resources- or financially rich to start with, and there weren’t suddenly going to be more than a small population of Arabians to draw from.  So what’s a small, zealous army to do?

Well, firstly, they make a deal.  Or more specifically, two deals.  The caliph gave orders, following on from the Qur’anic injunction to “fight against those who disbelieve in Allah … until they pay the tribute willingly, having been brought low” (9:29), that cities of Christians and Jews should be attacked only until they submitted and capitulated to a treaty, which included a tribute, paid as an annual tax.  Since the cities in the Near East had already suffered decades of back-and-forth conquest and re-conquest, this probably sounded like a pretty good deal.

Moreover, the amount paid by the city in tribute was decided based on how quickly they capitulated – a tactic that apparently worked, as the people of Damascus, after their conquest, argued with their Muslim governor about how much they should have to pay, claiming that the city (which is a circle) was attacked by two Muslim armies, one at the eastern gate and one at the western gate, and that one side capitulated and signed a treaty even as the other side was being invaded, so that they should be treated as a capitulated city because the treaty was signed in good faith (the governor agreed, and the city’s tax burden was lightened).

What’s more, members of the Muslim army were paid directly from the spoils of war, a tricky system to maintain as it requires a continual source of spoils.  In their case, however, it seems to have worked quite well, as it encouraged a continual, speedy expansion outward, as troops sought new, richer lands to invade.  In fact, Hugh Kennedy has argued rather persuasively that the invasion of Persia may not have been ordered by the caliph, but may have been an “El Dorado” situation, with troops on the ground in Iraq hearing tales of Persian wealth and wanting to go explore (and get their share).  The paid-as-you-go scheme also encouraged locals to join up as fortune hunters, thus increasing the army’s size without the negative local response that often resulted from conscription.

The expansion wasn’t nonstop, but the areas of delay were clearly financially beneficial – the Muslims fought for ten years to take Egypt, for example, but Egypt had been the breadbasket of the world for nearly a millennium, so there presumably would have been little argument about its value as a target.  By comparison, when the Muslims encountered strong resistance from locals in the Taurus mountains or the Saharan desert and sub-Saharan plains, they simply stopped their advance and went somewhere else (like central Anatolia and Spain).  And finally…

Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

So this one isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s probably a contributing factor.  Many Mediterranean armies had relied on footsoldiers since Alexander’s time, often using infantry to form a phalanx, a long line of soldiers holding shields and spears.  When attacked, they could interlace their shields and dig the spears into the ground, forming a kind of long, solid, spiky wall.  This proved particularly useful against horsemen, because people riding bareback or with simply saddles couldn’t jump the horses high enough to get over the spears without falling off.

But, the Arabians, although they rode bareback (according to contemporary accounts), had both spurs and stirrups.  Spurs make the horse go faster (and are horrible devices, for the record), and stirrups help you stay on the horse, even if something hits you.  A wooden spear versus a fast-moving horse may do some damage, but the horse is going to do at least as much damage to the guy standing next to the spear.

At the same time, horses and camels, which were also widely reared in Arabia, allow for fast travel and fast delivery of supplies, were bred to survive on minimal resources, and in really bad times, can be food themselves (as the Muslim army were forced to do during the siege of Constantinople in 717, during a particularly bad winter).

Again, the animals weren’t a definitive win in and of themselves, but they certainly made a difference, and forced both the Byzantines and Persians to fight very differently than they had historically.  The Arabians heavy use of animals may also explain why the Muslims met with resistance in North Africa, as the North African tribes (called Berbers, meaning simply barbarians) had more similar fighting styles to the Arabians themselves.

Of course, there were other factors, as well, not least the apparent persuasiveness of Islamic practice, as those locals who chose to participate in the expansion were also joining Islam as a faith, but certainly the situation on the ground played a huge role in the Muslims’ military and political successes.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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