Chapter 4 - A Transition of War
The Armies of Islam
As the Byzantine Empire was reaching the peak of its cultural and military power in the 7th century, deep within the deserts of Arabia a power was stirring that would change the face of the religious world forever. From the Byzantine point of view, the desert tracts of Arabia offered little in the way of rewards for conquest so, as with their Persian contemporaries, the eastern Romans made no effort to control the area. Arabia's only wealth lay in a few merchant towns, Mecca and Medina among them, that lay astride trade routes in the south. Into this world of Arab merchants and pastoral herdsmen was born Mohammed, the prophet of the religion of Islam, and a man destined to change the face of the world.
Beginning with a small band of zealot followers who started raiding the caravan routes, Mohammed forged the beginnings of an Arab army that within 100 years controlled all the territory from the Indus to the Atlantic along the North African littoral through Spain to the border of southern France.[Map] The armies of Islam, propelled by the Jihad belief that to die for the faith gained one paradise in the next life, gathered converts by the thousands wherever they marched. By 732, a century after Mohammed's death, the armies of Islam had destroyed the Persian Sassaniad empire, rolled back Byzantine power in the east to the Turkish border, incorporated all of Spain into the imperial realm, and narrowly missed overrunning France.
No one could have foreseen this staggering degree of military success, because for 300 years Arab armies were hardly armies at all. The early followers of Mohammed were desert tribes and clans called to the banner of the faith who fought in no organized formations. The idea of individual glory drove warriors to feats of great bravery, but at the same time made them impossible to organize as fighting units. For more than a century Arab soldiers fought with primitive weapons -- the personal sword, dagger, lance -- and wore no defensive armor or helmets. These conquering forces had no staff organization, no siegecraft capabilities, and no logistics trains. Tactics were almost nonexistent as these armies relied upon small hit-and-run raids, the razzias, and ambushes as their primary tactical maneuvers. Mobility was limited as most of the army moved on foot and fought as infantry accompanied by small contingents of camel cavalry. Even their size was small. The force that attacked and subdued Egypt (640-642) numbered no more than 4,000 men. But such corps of armed men could and did count on their numbers growing into the thousands as converts flocked to their cause along the line of march.
Arab military development was strongly influenced by experience and contact with other military cultures, most particularly by their wars with the Byzantines and Persians. In 635, an Arab chieftain, Khalid Ibn al-Walid, reorganized the Arab armies along Byzantine lines and created small combat units to replace the tribal levies. Whereas the tribal formations had deployed in long lines only three men deep, al-Walid created dense infantry formations after the Byzantine pattern. These new formations were organized into archer, infantry, and lance cavalry units and placed under the command of proven combat leaders who replaced the tribal and clan chiefs. He created the first Arab quartermaster corp, and even organized the women to carry knives and short swords to be used for stripping and dispatching the enemy wounded.
Horses were rare in Arabia (although not unknown), and the early Arab armies relied upon corps of special racing camels for transport and cavalry. The wars with the Persians brought the Arabs into contact with the horse, and the warriors of Allah were quick to grasp the importance of the horse as a military asset. Since Arab horses were brought into regular contact with their camel corps, the smell of the camel had no effect on them. The presence of camel cavalry, however, often spooked the horses of the enemy and weakened the opponent's force.
The empire reached its geographic zenith with its defeat by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Its expansionist phase over, the empire settled down to seven centuries of relative tranquility punctuated by violent caliphate rebellions and border wars. The defensive cast of the empire during this period was marked by the decentralization of the empire into a number of rival caliphates and the construction of military towns, ribats, which garrisoned special units of religious warriors to protect the empire and the faith. (Modern-day Rabat, Morocco derives from one of these fortress monasteries). At the same time the Arab armies adopted more and more Persian and Byzantine equipment and practices. By the 10th century, the chronicler al-Tabari recorded that the Arab warrior carried the following items of equipment: mail armor, breastplate, helmet, leg and arm guards, complete horse armor, small shield, lance, sword, mace, battle axe, bow case with two bows, a quiver of 30 arrows, and two spare bow strings. Added to this military capability was now a first-rate siegecraft capability. In equipment and tactics, the armies of Islam had become indistinguishable from the armies of Byzantium.