Arab Conquests

During the last few years of his life, the Prophet gradually expanded his sphere of influence within the Arabian Peninsula by means of military campaigns and peaceful alliances. In the aftermath of his death, the Muslim leadership at Medina began a series of conquests that still have the power to amaze the observer. Taking place over a period of ninety years, these conquests swept away the imperial forces of the Arabs’ proud neighbors to the north and resulted in a permanent cultural transformation of the societies that came under Muslim control.

Arabia and the Fertile Crescent

The Prophet’s sudden death in 632 was a stunning and disorienting experience for his followers. Having become dependent upon him to serve as both the channel of God’s revelation and the political and military leader of the new state, the community was bereft of its religious and political leadership at a stroke. That the despair and confusion in the wake of his death did not cause the collapse of his nascent movement is a testimony to the strength of the institutions and the ideals that Muhammad had left behind and to the quality of the leadership that succeeded him.

According to the most commonly accepted version of events, several factions emerged among the Muslims, each advocating its own solution to the leadership vacancy. The three primary groups were the original Muslim migrants to Medina, the natives of Medina who converted to Islam, and the Meccans who converted after the conquest of their city in 630. Two of the first converts to Islam, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and Abu Bakr, played leading roles during the decision-making days after the Prophet’s death. In the heat of the debate over the course of action to be taken, ‘Umar made a passionate speech that convinced those present to accept Abu Bakr as the leader of the Umma. Abu Bakr was a pious, highly respected confidant of Muhammad who was famous for his knowledge of the genealogy of the region’s tribes, a valuable asset for the politics of the day. He and the Prophet had solidified their relationship by Muhammad’s marriage to Abu Bakr’s nine-year-old daughter, ‘A’isha, soon after the Hijra. The young wife became Muhammad’s favorite, and he died in her arms. The title of the position that Abu Bakr now held came to be known as that of the caliph, although as we shall see later, it is not clear whether Abu Bakr himself was addressed by this title. There is evidence, in fact, that ‘Umar and Abu Bakr worked together closely during the latter’s short administration.

With the loss of the Prophet, the new leader’s most pressing challenge was that many of the tribes that had subjected themselves to Medina no longer considered themselves under Medina’s control. Interpreting the situation in traditional fashion, they felt that the terms that they had contracted with Muhammad had been of a personal nature, and that it was incumbent upon his successor to renegotiate the terms. They failed to pay their tax and waited for Medina to react. A reversion to paganism does not appear to have played a major role in this challenge to Medina’s authority. There were, indeed, certain “false prophets” leading challenges to Islam’s dominance among tribes in central and northeastern Arabia, but these were not areas within Medina’s sphere of influence. In most cases, the revolt represented a residual tribal antipathy toward unfamiliar centralized control, and it is clear that in some cases the affected tribes were divided, with significant factions wishing not to break with the Umma. Abu Bakr’s stature as a leader, however, lay in his recognition that to allow tribes to secede from the union would doom the newly emerging society and allow a relapse into the polytheistic and violent tribalism of the recent past. He perceived that Muhammad’s polity inextricably combined religious expression with political authority. Islam was not a religion that could recognize a difference between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. In the Prophet’s vision, any distinction between the “religious” and the “political” was fatuous. Political infidelity would result in religious infidelity.

The military campaign that Abu Bakr ordered to bring the recalcitrant tribes back under Medina’s control is known in Islamic history as the ridda wars, or the Wars of Apostasy. The campaign is important historically because it marks the transition to the Arab wars of conquest outside the peninsula. The campaign to coerce rebel groups to resubmit to Medinan hegemony made two seamless shifts in policy. The first was a transition from pacification of the rebellious tribes to one of subduing Arabian communities that had never had a treaty with the Prophet. The subjugation of the rebels was a short affair, which may be explained in part by evidence that many of the secessionist tribes and settlements were experiencing internal divisions over the issue of rebellion and put up only a half-hearted resistance. In the process of coercing rebel groups back under Medinan hegemony, the Muslim army at some point began to subdue the Arabian tribes that had not made submission. Despite fierce resistance from a handful of tribes, Medina won an overwhelming victory and was master of the peninsula by 634. Augmented by the manpower of the forces that it had conquered in the Ridda wars, the Muslim army was large and confident, whereas its opponents could never unite against Medina. The decisive victory by the diverse coalition that made up the Islamic state made a deep impression on many Arabs regarding the inadequacy of a purely tribal identity.

Just as the Ridda wars are impossible to distinguish from the war for the conquest of the peninsula, so the latter evolved imperceptibly into invasions of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. The specific reasons for this evolution into major international military expeditions are lost to history, but scholars have suggested three factors that may have converged precisely when the two empires were at their weakest. The first was a geopolitical motivation on the part of the Muslim leadership. As Medina’s campaign moved into the northern part of the peninsula, the objectives of the Muslim elite may well have expanded. Muhammad himself had already attempted to gain control of the Arabian tribes and settlements on the route from the Hijaz to Syria; now Abu Bakr seems to have been concerned about the threat posed to the Umma by nomads and rival settlements situated on important trade routes. He was concerned with bringing under his control any potential security threat to the trade of the new state, and he used a combination of force, cajolery, and material incentives to do so.

The second factor was the inspiration of religion itself. Many of the soldiers who fought for Medina throughout the Arabian campaigns were genuinely motivated by religious concerns. The Qur’an repeatedly enjoins believers to engage in a struggle (jihad) against unbelievers until God’s rule is established on this earth. Muslims who refuse to help either by fighting, or by helping the cause by contributing to it financially, are called hypocrites. On the other hand, those who fight are rewarded not only spiritually (in the afterlife), but also materially (the troops are to share four-fifths of the loot captured in fighting the infidels). The scriptures, the promise of material reward, and social pressure all combined to create a polity that offered powerful ideological motivations for participation in warfare.

Which of these motivations was most important to the typical rank-and-file soldier? It would be interesting to know. Few of the fighters could have been knowledgeable regarding the nature of societies beyond their own, and no doubt initially envisioned fighting and converting only pagan Arabs. As it turned out, they chose to tolerate the existence of the huge number of Christians and Jews in the lands west of Iran, and nowhere did they welcome non-Arab converts to Islam. What, then, was the nature of God’s rule that they hoped to establish as a result of their efforts? Unfortunately, it is as impossible to know the answer to this question as it is to know the exact motivations of the Frankish crusaders who went off to Palestine or of the conquistadores with Cortes who claimed to be engaging in a mission for God against the Aztecs.

A third factor in the unexpected irruption of the Islamic movement into regions outside the peninsula was one that we shall see repeated many times over the next eight centuries when nomads were recruited into armies in the Afro-Asiatic land mass: Although the nomads were supposed to be instruments of the policy of political leaders, their own needs and expectations often dictated policy. The irony facing the Medinan and Meccan elites was that a majority of their troops were of necessity the very bedouin who historically had depended on raiding settlements for the acquisition of their surplus. In a sense, the Muslim leadership was riding a tiger by depending on armies made up of the social group that posed a perpetual threat to the personal, political, and economic security of town dwellers.

It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have escaped the dilemma. Muslims expected the raids and battles to yield plunder as well as strategic or religious gains. The Qur’an stipulated that the Prophet would retain one-fifth of the captured property from such battles for distribution among the community, and the remainder would be divided among the warriors who participated in the fighting. The wars under the first caliphs continued that policy, with one-fifth of the captured property going to the caliph. Each Muslim victory yielded plunder and recruits from the ranks of the vanquished. The additional warriors made the next stage of conquest easier, but they also made the next stage imperative. Further conquests were needed to satisfy the demand and expectation of plunder. The conquest of neighboring tribes within the peninsula, then of settlements outside the peninsula, and then of contiguous areas beyond, proved to be a way of providing the nomads with loot, which kept their minds on new enemies and opportunities, rather than on the central government. Controlling the forces that made their very success possible, however, would be a continuing challenge for the Muslim leadership.

The Arabian Peninsula merges imperceptibly with the land mass of southwest Asia. So, too, did the presence of Arabs extend from the peninsula into the Fertile Crescent. From the Medinan perspective, the Syrian and Iraqi Arabs were obvious candidates for incorporation into the Umma. The Syrian portion of the Fertile Crescent received priority. As we have seen, Muhammad had already sent more than one army in its direction. Its oases and green hills were known to those who plied the caravan trade, and it was the setting for many of the important religious figures mentioned in the Qur’an. Populated by numerous Arabs, it attracted Muslims for both religious and economic reasons.

In the autumn of 633, four Arab armies entered southern Syria and were soon joined by a fifth army that Abu Bakr transferred to Syria from its location on the southern Euphrates in Iraq, where it had been engaged in raiding and reconnaissance. The total manpower of the Muslim forces probably amounted to about 24,000 troops, including both infantry and cavalry. Abu Bakr died a few months later and was succeeded by his friend ‘Umar by the same process of deliberation that had brought Abu Bakr into the leadership role a mere two years earlier. Reflecting the common vision of the two men, the Syrian conquest proceeded without interruption.

Whereas the Muslim conquest of Syria proceeded seamlessly despite the death of the first caliph, the Byzantine defense of the region never became coherent. Plague and sustained warfare had reduced the population of the area by twenty to forty percent over the previous century, and adequate provision had not been made for the loss of the Ghassanid auxiliaries. Byzantine armies, forced to move at the rate of their infantry, might travel twenty miles per day at best and by this time had developed a reputation for preferring a defensive rather than an offensive posture. They had also lost much of their discipline and combat readiness. The best of the regular imperial troops were concentrated near Constantinople, and those in Syria were outnumbered by their own, friendly, Arab forces by a ratio of at least two to one, and perhaps five to one. The populace was sullen. The numerous Monophysite Christians had no reason to feel loyalty to distant Constantinople, and the Jews were suffering severe persecution in retaliation for their active support of the Sasanian occupation that had just ended.

The first objective of the Muslims was to establish dominance over the Arabic-speaking areas of southern and eastern Syria. Many of these tribes put up stiff resistance against what they thought was another raid from desert dwellers, but many local Arabs, including Christians, joined the conquering armies. With these reinforcements, the invaders developed a numerical advantage over the local defenders. Syrian cities in the interior began to fall, and Damascus surrendered in 636. At that point, Heraclius realized that the invasion was a serious threat and sent in a huge Byzantine army that was reinforced by Arab and Armenian mercenaries. At the Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan River just south of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), the Muslims and their local allies decisively defeated the Byzantine coalition, effectively sealing the fate of Syria. The only question would be how long the sieges of the remaining cities would take. Over the next few months, Antioch and Aleppo fell, and Jerusalem capitulated in 637. The seaport of Caesarea was the last Byzantine city to fall, in 640. The Muslim Arabs now ruled the coastal plains and the interior, although they never gained effective control of the remote and rugged Lebanese mountainous areas.

Although the chronology is not certain, it appears that after the battle of Yarmuk, ‘Umar felt that he could send troops into Iraq. When the Muslims began their attacks on Iraq, local Arab nomads and the Aramaic towns fought to protect themselves. Soon, however, the primary Muslim army devastated a much larger Sasanian force at Qadisiya, northwest of Hira. It then moved on to capture Ctesiphon. From that point, the largely Nestorian and Jewish population of central Iraq put up little resistance. Meanwhile, a second Muslim army captured southern Iraq. The young Sasanian emperor, Yazdagird, fled east, and, by 638, the Muslims had secured almost all of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The conquerors established military settlements to serve as garrison cities that could ensure security, serve as supply points, and keep the Arab troops from mixing with the local people. Kufa and Basra were the biggest of these new settlements, and within a short time, each of these new towns was thronged with tens of thousands of Arabs from the peninsula.

Meanwhile, in 639, the Arab commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As requested permission from ‘Umar to lead a force into the Nile valley. ‘Umar, whose clearly stated focus had been the subjugation of Arab populations rather than conquest in general, initially refused. After further consideration, ‘Umar gave his reluctant consent, perhaps being persuaded by the security threat posed by the Byzantine army and navy that were based in Alexandria. Muslim armies now entered a new phase of their conquests. From that point, they would spread the hegemony of Islam wherever their power enabled them to overcome local resistance. ‘Amr’s army benefitted from the policies of the Orthodox patriarch, Cyrus. After the Byzantines retook Egypt from the Sasanians in 628, Cyrus had begun a savage repression of Monophysitism, with the result that Copts provided no support to their hated Byzantine overlords. ‘Amr’s army won control of Egypt by 641, and he created a military garrison and capital, calling it Fustat. Significantly, it was near the old Roman settlement of Babylon, on the southern fringe of the Nile delta, rather than at the traditional seaside capital, Alexandria. Whereas Alexandria was Greek in culture and faced the Byzantine-dominated Mediterranean, Fustat—like Kufa and Basra—was for Arab troops, and was oriented toward Medina.


Seven years of campaigning won the Fertile Crescent and Egypt for the Muslim armies. The flat terrain and arid and semiarid climate were familiar and congenial to the victors; the poor organization and morale of the imperial armies had allowed the traditional superiority of nomadic attackers to prevail over settled life; and after the initial shock, the population had reacted to the new administration with a mixture of relief and resignation. The momentum of the victories carried the Muslim armies to the east and to the west simultaneously, and they were continuously augmented by migrants from Arabia, new converts in the conquered territories, and even by warriors, such as former Sasanian troops, who were not required to convert as a condition of service in the Muslim army. The next stage of the conquests would prove to be no less remarkable than the first, but would be much more difficult.

The Sasanians had been defeated in Iraq, but Yazdagird’s generals organized a large army on the Iranian plateau with the intention of driving out the invaders. ‘Umar ordered a campaign to meet him that entailed having to advance through the Zagros Mountains, a terrain unfamiliar to the Arab army. The Zagros at that point are 125 miles wide. They run north and south and are arranged in parallel, rugged ridges that contain deep gorges. It was in the Zagros that the Arab army encountered Yazdagird at Nahavand in 642, the most difficult and costly of all the battles the Arabs had to fight against the Sasanian forces. The Arabs won, however, and Yazdagird once again fled to the east as a fugitive, with the Arabs in pursuit.

The Arab campaign to conquer Iran was well planned, but it faced formidable challenges. One was a change in leadership. In 644, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was stabbed to death by an Iranian who had been captured during the conquest. His successor was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who had supported Muhammad from the beginning of his mission. Again reflecting the remarkable unity of the early leadership, the Iranian campaign continued without interruption under the new caliph.

The other challenges were the different terrain and the new level of resistance from the local inhabitants. In southwestern Iran, the Sasanian royal family’s favorite province of Fars produced the fiercest resistance of all. Five years (645–650) of sustained, brutal fighting were required to reduce such opposition, during which time the Sasanian aristocracy was exterminated. The inhabitants of Fars resisted conversion to Islam for longer than any other group in Iran. In order to control the other Iranian cultural areas, an invader must master the Zagros Mountains, rugged Azerbaijan in the northwest, and the Elburz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea, as well as maintain a vigilant watch on the great deserts of the interior. Moreover, unlike Iraq, whose population had not defended the Sasanian regime, other provinces fought the invaders almost as fiercely as the inhabitants of Fars did. The Muslim army encountered bitter and prolonged fighting in Azerbaijan from the fiercely independent mountain peoples there. As a result, the province suffered extensive destruction. On the northern Iranian plateau itself, the Arabs also faced stiff resistance. The Arabs secured the southern slopes of the Elburz Mountains while following the trade route east through Rayy en route to Khorasan. They took Nishapur (Neyshabur) and Merv (near modern Mary) in 651, not long after Yazdagird was murdered in that region by his own companions. Due to its size and its resistance, Khorasan was not effectively under Arab control until 654.

In 656, the conquests suddenly stopped for a decade, due to a civil war that rocked the new community of Islam. This bloody conflict was a shock to the many Muslims who had assumed that the principles of religious unity, equality, and justice would bring an end to factionalism. (The civil war will be the subject of a detailed treatment in the next chapter.) At this point, it is sufficient to say that the conflict began when the third caliph, ‘Uthman, was assassinated in 656 by disgruntled warriors from the garrison of Fustat in Egypt. These men then secured the selection of ‘Ali ibn Talib as ‘Uthman’s successor. ‘Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and had been among the very earliest of the converts to Islam. He was widely admired, and a devoted group of followers had been demanding that he be selected caliph ever since the death of the Prophet. Now, however, because he took no steps to punish the murderers of his predecessor, ‘Ali became the target of a vendetta by ‘Uthman’s kinsmen, who were known as the Umayyads.

The vendetta grew to such large proportions that it became a civil war. The leader of the Umayyad cause was ‘Uthman’s nephew, Mu‘awiya, the talented governor of Syria. In 661, ‘Ali became the third caliph in a row to be murdered, stabbed to death while at prayers in a mosque. Mu‘awiya now claimed the right to succeed ‘Ali as caliph. Because Mu‘awiya remained in Syria, Damascus became the center of Muslim political and economic power, and Medina was relegated to the periphery of the Arab empire. Mu‘awiya (661–680) proved to be a skillful and honest administrator, but one of his decisions won him enduring enmity among many Muslims. Rather than relying on a council to select the next caliph, he named his own son to be his successor. His family, the Umayyads, thus became the dynastic rulers who claimed the leadership of the Arab empire from 661 until they were overthrown in 750.

Under the Umayyads, the conquests resumed. Using Coptic sailors who had been in the Byzantine naval squadron based in Alexandria, the Arabs led several fruitless naval raids on Constantinople between 667 and 680. During these same campaigns, however, the Arabs captured Crete and established a presence on the island of Cyprus, which they used as a base to attack Byzantine shipping for the next three centuries. Arab armies could not secure a lasting foothold in the densely settled areas north of the Taurus Mountains. The Byzantines had lost Syria and Egypt, but still retained Anatolia and the Balkans. Anatolia’s population was equal to that of Egypt and Syria combined, and by possessing it and the Balkans, Constantinople was sufficiently wealthy to remain the mighty capital of a powerful empire for centuries to come. The Sasanians had been destroyed, but the Byzantines would engage the Muslims in almost continuous warfare for centuries and present a difficult barrier against further Islamic expansion despite their notorious political instability.


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