The Arab Conquest II


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.

North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula

North Africa did not lure the Arabs the way Syria and Iraq had. Arab troops occupied Tripoli in 643 during ‘Amr’s consolidation of his victory in Egypt, but he attempted no conquests further west. For several decades thereafter, North Africa provided an opportunity for local warriors and adventurers to make raids while the main theater of conquest lay to the east.

North Africa west of central Libya (the Gulf of Sidra) is usually referred to as the Maghrib, an Arabic word meaning “land of the west,” or “land of sunset.” The Maghribi coastal plain is fertile for most of its length, and the area comprising modern Algeria and Tunisia was a major source of wheat, wine, and olive oil for the Romans and Byzantines. Peasant villages dotted the coast and were found throughout the valleys and passes of the mountain ranges, which become progressively more imposing from Tunisia into Morocco. Most of the towns were ports along the coast, although some were located in fertile wheat-growing areas dozens of miles inland. Roman Carthage had attained a population of at least 100,000 at its peak, but it never fully recovered after having been sacked by the Vandals in 439.

In the seventh century, the Berbers were the dominant ethnic group throughout the 2000 miles from the Libyan plateau to the Atlantic coast. The Berber languages belong to the Afroasiatic language family, along with the Semitic, Chad, and ancient Egyptian languages. However, several of the major Berber dialects are almost mutually incomprehensible, and the result has been a long history of rivalry and conflict among the major groupings.

Like the Arabs themselves, some Berbers were camel nomads, a greater number were seminomads, and the largest number were settled in villages and towns. The pastoral and village Berbers had always remained little touched by Roman and Byzantine culture, but urban Berbers had assimilated to it, especially in the beautiful and prosperous areas of northern Tunisia and eastern Algeria, the Roman province of “Africa.” Under the Arabs, this province would become known as Ifriqiya.

The coastal areas of the Maghrib were largely Christian, and boasted hundreds of bishops in an age when each town had its own bishop. Luminaries such as Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430) established North Africa as a major center of Christian activity. Carthage was one of the major churches in the Christian world during the third and fourth centuries. During the fourth and fifth centuries, however, a major controversy broke out within the North African Church that opened bitter ethnic and social cleavages, leaving the Christian community divided on the eve of Muslim expansion.

During the mid-seventh century, the Maghrib was a venue for raids by Arabs stationed in Egypt. Under Mu‘awiya, the Umayyads launched larger raids into Byzantine North Africa in the 660s and 670s, coordinated with their attacks on Constantinople. A notable accomplishment of these raids was the creation in 668 of a headquarters at Qayrawan (Kairouan), which eventually became one of the most important cities in North Africa. However, the raiders were not able to capture Byzantine cities or subdue the Berber tribesmen.

The first major invasion did not take place until 693. Although the army captured Carthage, it was soon expelled by tribal forces. A second invasion in 698 was more successful. In that year, Carthage was destroyed, and during the period 705–714, the Maghribi governor Musa ibn Nusayr overran the areas to the west, all the way to the Atlantic. Musa owed much of his success to Berber tribesmen, many of whom converted to Islam during the 690s and joined his army. Unlike the sedentary Berbers, numerous nomadic Berbers from the coastal plains formally adopted Islam (albeit with a considerable admixture of folk religion) by the end of the seventh century. North Africa may well have been the most Islamized of the conquered areas by that time. Thousands of nomadic Berbers joined the conquering Muslim armies. Although they were not paid a stipend as the Arabs were, the Berber warriors were allowed to share in the distribution of the plunder of the conquests, unlike the non-Arabs in the Muslim armies of the east. Many Berbers became high-ranking civil and military officers in the new administrative system.

Before he had even consolidated his position in the Maghrib, Musa received an unexpected appeal from the Visigothic royal family of the Iberian Peninsula for support against a usurper named Roderick. The Visigoths had crossed the Pyrenees three hundred years earlier, but had not managed to subdue the whole peninsula until the 630s, when Muhammad was consolidating his position at Medina. They had long been influenced by Roman culture, and provided patronage to those who produced it. The great Latin scholar Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) was a beneficiary of such cultural largesse. Initially maintaining a clear division between themselves and the much larger Hispano–Roman population, the Visigoths gradually adopted legal and religious policies during the seventh century that appeared to be creating a stable society. The economy, however, remained dangerously dependent on a weak agricultural sector that proved to be vulnerable to recurring droughts during the seventh and early eighth centuries. The famines and social unrest that resulted provoked the formation of factions within the military elite, leading to great instability within the regime. The Jews, who had already been persecuted by the Visigoths, now became scapegoats for the growing unrest, and were tortured, enslaved, and forced to convert to Christianity. The political crisis reached its peak in 710, when Roderick seized the throne and one faction within the royal family appealed to Musa for aid.

In 711, Musa sent an army across the Strait of Gibraltar and devastated Roderick’s forces. Whatever Musa’s intentions for the expedition might have been, the campaign rapidly became one of conquest. The largely Berber force swept across the disorganized peninsula with surprising ease, subjugating the bulk of it within five years. The invaders met little resistance from the inhabitants of most areas and were actively aided by members of the substantial Jewish population, some of whom served in garrisons that were assigned the responsibility to preserve order in captured cities. By 720, the Iberian Peninsula had been pacified, except for a small area in the mountainous north called Asturias.

Central Asia and the Indus River Valley

Some towns in Khorasan took advantage of the civil war between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya (656–661) to assert their independence, but they were almost immediately recaptured. In order to secure its position, the Arab army in the region captured Herat in 660, extending the empire’s frontier considerably eastward. Khorasan was a wealthy province and, as the Sasanians had known, it was the front line in the defense against Central Asian nomads. The new Umayyad dynasty placed a high value on securing control of the area, and in 671 Damascus ordered a massive colonization effort, which resulted in the settlement of 50,000 Arab warriors and their families in Merv. Merv thus reasserted the role it had played under the Sasanians, serving as the primary garrison city in the east. For the next thirty years, Arabs raided across the Amu Darya for the purpose of looting and keeping the area disorganized, but not of annexing it.

Transoxiana, the target of the looting, had long been a cultural melting pot. Most of the area is desert or semidesert, but it was densely settled in the many oases and along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river valleys that bordered it on the south and north, respectively. The two most important cities were Samarqand and Bukhara. Because of the region’s location, it was frequented by merchants from all over Asia, whose activities augmented the wealth derived from agriculture. As a result of its attraction to traders, Samarqand and Bukhara were cosmopolitan centers and numbered among their citizens Zoroastrians, Buddhists, shamanists, Nestorians, and Manichaeans, as well as adherents of other religious traditions. Intellectuals were attracted to the cities, and rich merchants were pleased to patronize them, so the two cities had a reputation for a rich intellectual life.

In 705, Qutayba ibn Muslim became the governor of Khorasan and began his spectacular, albeit destructive, ten-year career as the leader of Umayyad expansion into Central Asia. His task was quite different from that of the other Arab military commanders, who were leading bands of Arab or Berber warriors with nomadic backgrounds, and for whom constant movement was normal. By the early eighth century, tens of thousands of Arabs had assimilated into the local Iranian society in Khorasan, having bought farms or set up businesses. Although they were offered the normal stipend for military service, as well as a share in the loot, many of the Arabs were reluctant to set off on the campaigns. Qutayba was forced to supplement the local Arab contingents with Syrian soldiers and levies of non-Muslim Khorasanis. Qutayba’s army captured Bukhara in 709 after a three-year siege. The ensuing sack of the city resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the destruction of invaluable manuscripts. In 711–712, Qutayba annexed Khwarazm (the lower reaches of the Amu Darya) and Samarqand; and in 713, he subjugated Farghana, the upper valley of the Syr Darya, which today lies in the eastern extremity of Uzbekistan. According to the Arab chroniclers, the conquest of Central Asia was unusually brutal, and Qutayba’s end was equally so: His own troops killed him. Tired of the endless campaigning, both the Arab and the Iranian Khorasanis wanted to return to their families and businesses.

About the time that Qutayba began his conquest of Transoxiana, the conquest of Sind began. Sind was the name Arabs gave to the valley of the Indus River and the territories lying to its east and west. It was one of the cradles of civilization. Like Egypt and Iraq, Sind is a desert in which riverine irrigation produces a large surplus of foodstuffs. The Indus allows a rich agricultural valley to extend for almost four hundred miles through this arid region and made possible the Mohenjo-daro civilization of ca. 2300 B.C.E. Because of the agricultural wealth to be derived from the area, it was contested by neighboring empires and had been controlled by the Sasanians. By the early eighth century, the majority of the population was Buddhist, but Hindus were engaged in an aggressive campaign to become the dominant community. During the first decade of the eighth century, an Arab merchant ship was beached during a storm near the town of Daybul, approximately where modern-day Karachi is located. Pirates plundered the passengers’ possessions and enslaved the women and children. Al-Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq, demanded that the local ruler arrange for the release of the captives and the restoration of their property, but was rebuffed. Al-Hajjaj sent two unsuccessful expeditions against the city, but the third was commanded by his young son-in-law, Muhammad ibn Qasim, who became famous as the conqueror of Sind.

In 711, Muhammad ibn Qasim’s well-equipped army captured Daybul after a fierce siege. Muhammad then moved north up the Indus. He captured the city of Multan in 713 after another arduous siege and overthrew the Hindu ruler there. Many of the local Buddhists, like those in other cities that he captured, welcomed him because they were anxious to be rid of their Hindu rulers, whom they viewed as usurpers. In fact, the bitter sieges of Daybul and Multan were the exceptions in a conquest that was characterized more by voluntary surrenders than by brutality. With the conquest of Multan, Muhammad became the ruler of all of Sind and part of the Punjab, the name given to the area through which five rivers flow to form the headwaters of the Indus. As Muslims were approaching the Pyrenees in Europe, Muhammad ibn Qasim had set up an Umayyad administration over the Indus valley, 5000 miles to the east.

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