Early Muslim conquests
|Early Muslim conquests|
|File:Map of expansion of Caliphate.svg
Expansion from 622-750, with modern borders overlaid
|Commanders and leaders|
The early Muslim conquests (Arabic: الفتوحات الإسلامية, al-Futūḥāt al-Islāmiyya) also referred to as the Arab conquests and early Islamic conquests began with the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. He established a new unified polity in the Arabian Peninsula which under the subsequent Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates saw a century of rapid expansion.
The resulting empire stretched from the borders of China and India, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the Pyrenees. Edward Gibbon writes in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Under the last of the Umayyads, the Arabian empire extended two hundred days journey from east to west, from the confines of Tartary and India to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. [...] We should vainly seek the indissoluble union and easy obedience that pervaded the government of Augustus and the Antonines; but the progress of Islam diffused over this ample space a general resemblance of manners and opinions. The language and laws of the Quran were studied with equal devotion at Samarcand and Seville: the Moor and the Indian embraced as countrymen and brothers in the pilgrimage of Mecca; and the Arabian language was adopted as the popular idiom in all the provinces to the westward of the Tigris.
The Muslim conquests brought about the collapse of the Sassanid Empire and a great territorial loss for the Byzantine Empire. The reasons for the Muslim success are hard to reconstruct in hindsight, primarily because only fragmentary sources from the period have survived. Most historians agree that the Sassanid Persian and Byzantine Roman empires were militarily and economically exhausted from decades of fighting one another.
Some Jews and Christians in the Sassanid Empire and Jews and Monophysites in Syria were dissatisfied and welcomed the Muslim forces, largely because of religious conflict in both empires, while at other times, such as in the Battle of Firaz, Arab Christians allied themselves with the Persians and Byzantines against the invaders. In the case of Byzantine Egypt, Palestine and Syria, these lands had only a few years before being reacquired from the Persians, and had not been ruled by the Byzantines for over 25 years.
Fred McGraw Donner, however, suggests that formation of a state in the Arabian peninsula and ideological (i.e. religious) coherence and mobilization was a primary reason why the Muslim armies in the space of a hundred years were able to establish the largest pre-modern empire until that time. The estimates for the size of the Islamic Caliphate suggest it was more than thirteen million square kilometers (five million square miles), making it larger than all current states except the Russian Federation.
- 1 Background
- 2 Military campaigns
- 2.1 Conquest of Syria: 634-641
- 2.2 Conquest of Egypt: 639–642
- 2.3 Conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia: 633–651
- 2.4 Explanations of success of the early conquests
- 2.5 Conquest of Sindh: 711–714
- 2.6 Conquest of the Maghreb: 670–742
- 2.7 Conquest of Hispania and Septimania: 711–721
- 2.8 Conquest of Transoxiana: 673–751
- 2.9 Other campaigns and end of early conquests
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 See also
- 5 References
The prolonged and escalating Byzantine–Sassanid wars of the 6th and 7th centuries and the recurring outbreaks of bubonic plague (Plague of Justinian) left both empires exhausted and vulnerable in the face of the sudden emergence and expansion of the Arabs. The last of these wars ended with victory for the Byzantines: Emperor Heraclius regained all lost territories, and restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in 629.
Nevertheless, neither empire was given any chance to recover, as within a few years they were struck by the onslaught of the Arabs (newly united by Islam), which, according to Howard-Johnston, "can only be likened to a human tsunami". According to George Liska, the "unnecessarily prolonged Byzantine–Persian conflict opened the way for Islam".
In late 620s Muhammad had already managed to conquer and unify much of Arabia under Muslim rule, and it was under his leadership that the first Muslim-Byzantine skirmishes took place. Just a few months after Heraclius and the Persian general Shahrbaraz agreed on terms for the withdrawal of Persian troops from occupied Byzantine eastern provinces in 629, Arab and Byzantine troops confronted each other at the Mu'tah. Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph with undisputed control of the entire Arab peninsula after the successful Ridda Wars, which resulted in the consolidation of a powerful Muslim state throughout the peninsula.
Conquest of Syria: 634-641
The province of Syria was the first to be wrested from Byzantine control. Arab-Muslim raids that followed the Ridda wars prompted the Byzantines to send a major expedition into southern Palestine, which was defeated by the Arab forces under command of Khalid ibn al-Walid at the Battle of Ajnadayn (634). On the heels of their victory, the Arab armies took Damascus in 636, with Baalbek, Homs, and Hama to follow soon afterwards. However, other fortified towns continued to resist despite the rout of the imperial army and had to be conquered individually. Jerusalem fell in 638, Caesarea in 640, while others held out until 641.
Conquest of Egypt: 639–642
The Byzantine province of Egypt held strategic importance for its grain production, naval yards, and as a base for further conquests in Africa. The Muslim general 'Amr ibn al-'As began the conquest of the province on his own initiative in 639. The Arab forces won a major victory at the Battle of Heliopolis (640), but they found it difficult to advance further because major cities in the Nile Delta were protected by water and because they lacked the machinery to break down city fortifications. Nevertheless, the province was scarcely urbanized and the defenders lost hope of receiving reinforcements from Constantinople when the emperor Heraclius died in 641. The last major center to fall into Arab hands was Alexandria, which capitulated in 642. According to Hugh Kennedy, "Of all the early Muslim conquests, that of Egypt was the swiftest and most complete. [...] Seldom in history can so massive a political change have happened so swiftly and been so long lasting."
Conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia: 633–651
After an Arab incursion into Sasanian territories, the energetic king Yazdgerd III, who had just ascended the Persian throne, raised an army to resist the invasion. However, the Persians suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in 636. As a result, the Arab-Muslims gained control over the whole of Iraq, including Ctesiphon, the capital city of the Sassanids. The Persian forces withdrew over the Zagros mountains and the Arab army pursued them across the Iranian plateau, where the fate of the Sasanian empire was sealed at the Battle of Nahāvand (642). As the conquerors slowly covered the vast distances of Iran punctuated by hostile towns and fortresses, Yazdgerd III retreated, finally taking refuge in Khorasan, where he was assassinated by a local satrap in 651. In the aftermath of their victory over the imperial army, the invaders still had to contend with a collection of militarily weak but geographically inaccessible principalities of Persia. It took decades to bring them all under control of the caliphate.
Explanations of success of the early conquests
The rapidity of the early conquests has received various interpretations. Contemporary Christian writers conceived them as God's punishment visited on their fellow Christians for their sins. Early Muslim historians viewed them as a reflection of religious zeal of the conquerors and evidence of divine favor. The theory that the conquests are explainable as an Arab migration triggered by economic pressures enjoyed popularity early in the 20th century, but has largely fallen out of favor among historians, especially those who distinguish the migration from the conquests that preceded and enabled it.
There are indications that the conquests started as initially disorganized pillaging raids launched partly by non-Muslim Arab tribes in the aftermath of the Ridda wars, and were soon extended into a war of conquest by the Rashidun caliphs, although other scholars argue that the conquests were a planned military venture already underway during Muhammad's lifetime. According to Fred Donner, the advent of Islam "revolutionized both the ideological bases and the political structures of the Arabian society, giving rise for the first time to a state capable of an expansionist movement."
Another key reason was the weakness of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, caused by the wars they had waged against each other in the preceding decades with alternating success. It was aggravated by a plague that had struck densely populated areas and impeded conscription of new imperial troops, while the Arab armies could draw on substatian numbers of nomads. The Sasanian empire, which had lost the latest round of hostilites with the Byzantines was also affected by a crisis of confidence, and its elites suspected that the ruling dynasty had forfeited favor of the gods. The Arab military advantage was increased when Christianized Arab tribes who had served imperial armies as regular or auxiliary troops switched sides and joined the west-Arabian coalition. Arab commanders also made liberal use of agreements to spare lives and property of inhabitants in case of surrender and exemptions from paying tribute extended to groups who provided military services to the conquerors. Additionally, the Byzantine persecution of Christians opposed to the Chalcedonian creed in Syria and Egypt alienated elements of those communities and made them more open to accommodation with the Arabs once it became clear that the latter would let them practice their faith undisturbed as long as they paid tribute.
The conquests were further secured by the large-scale migration of Arabian peoples into the conquered lands which followed the conquests. Robert Hoyland argues that the failure of the Sasanian empire to recover was due in large part to the geographically and politically disconnected nature of Persia, which made coordinated action difficult once the established Sasanian rule collapsed. Similarly, the difficult terrain of Anatolia made it difficult for the Byzantines to mount a large-scale attack to recover the lost lands, and their offensive action was limited to organizing guerrilla operations against the Arabs in the Levant.
Conquest of Sindh: 711–714
Although there were sporadic incursions by Arab generals in the direction of India in the 660s and a small Arab garrison was established in the arid region of Makran in the 670s, the first large-scale Arab campaign in the Indus valley occurred when the general Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh in 711 after a coastal march through Makran. Three years later the Arabs controlled all of the lower Indus valley. Most of the towns seem to have submitted to Arab rule under peace treaties, although there was fierce resistance in other areas, including by the forces of Raja Dahir at the capital city Debal. Arab incursions southward from Sindh were repulsed by armies of Gurjara and Chalukya kingdoms, and further Islamic expansion was checked by the Rashtrakuta empire, which gained control of the region shortly after.
Conquest of the Maghreb: 670–742
Arab forces began launching sporadic raiding expeditions into Cyrenaica (modern northeast Libya) and beyond soon after their conquest of Egypt. Byzantine rule in northwest Africa at the time was largely confined to the coastal plains, while autonomous Berber polities controlled the rest. In 670 Arabs founded the settlement of Qayrawan, which gave them a forward base for further expansion. Muslim historians credit the general Uqba ibn Nafi with subsequent conquest of lands extending to the Atlantic coast, although it appears to have been a temporary incursion. The Berber chief Kusayla and an enigmatic leader referred to as Kahina (prophetess or priestess) seem to have mounted effective, if short-lived resistance to Muslim rule at the end of the 7th century, but the sources do not give a clear picture of these events. Arab forces were able to capture Carthage in 698 and Tangiers by 708. After the fall of Tangiers, many Berbers joined the Muslim army. In 740 Umayyad rule in the region was shaken by a major Berber revolt, which also involved Berber Kharijite Muslims. After a series of defeats, the caliphate was finally able to crush the rebellion in 742, although local Berber dynasties continued to drift away from imperial control from that time on.
Conquest of Hispania and Septimania: 711–721
The Muslim conquest of Iberia is notable for the brevity and unreliability of the available sources. After the Visigothic king of Spain Wittiza died in 710, the kingdom experienced a period of political division. Taking advantage of the situation, the Muslim Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad, who was stationed in Tangiers at the time, crossed the straits with an army of Arabs and Berbers. After defeating the forces of king Roderic, Muslim forces advanced capturing cities of the Gothic kingdom one after another. Some of them surrendered with agreements to pay tribute and local aristocracy retained a measure of former influence. By 713 Iberia was almost entirely under Muslim control. The events of the subsequent ten years, whose details are obscure, included capture of Barcelona and Narbonne, and a raid against Toulouse, followed by an expedition into Burgundy in 725. The last large-scale raid to the north ended with a Muslim defeat at the Battle of Tours at the hands of the Franks in 732.
Conquest of Transoxiana: 673–751
Initial incursions across the Oxus river were aimed at Bukhara (673) and Samarqand (675) and their results were limited to promises of tribute payments. Further advances were hindered for a quarter century by political upheavals of the Umayyad caliphate. This was followed by a decade of rapid military progress under the leadership of the new governor of Khurasan, Qutayba ibn Muslim, which included conquest of Bukhara and Samarqand in 706-712. The expansion lost its momentum when Qutayba was killed during an army mutiny and the Arabs were placed on the defensive by an alliance of Sogdian and Türgesh forces with support from Tang China. However, reinforcements from Syria helped turn the tide and most of the lost lands were reconquered by 741. Muslim rule over Transoxania was consolidated a decade later when a Chinese-led army was defeated at the Battle of Talas (751).
Other campaigns and end of early conquests
In 646 a Byzantine naval expedition was able to briefly recapture Alexandria. The same year Mu‘awiya, the governor of Syria and future founder of the Umayyad dynasty, ordered construction of a fleet. Three years later it was put to use in a pillaging raid of Cyprus, soon followed by a second raid in 650 that concluded with a treaty under which Cypriots surrendered many of their riches and slaves. In 688 the island was made into a joint dominion of the caliphate and the Byzantine empire under a pact which was to last for almost 300 years.
In 639-640 Arab forces began to make incursions into Armenia, which had been partitioned into a Byzantine province and a Sasanian province. There is considerable disagreement among ancient and modern historians about events of the following years, and nominal control of the region may have passed several times between Arabs and Byzantines. Although Muslim dominion was finally established by the time the Umayyads acceded to power in 661, it was not able to implant itself solidly in the country, and Armenia experienced a national and literary efflorescence over the next century. As with Armenia, Arab advances into other lands of the Caucasus region, including Georgia, had as their end assurances of tribute payment and these principalities retained a large degree of autonomy. This period also saw a series of clashes with the Khazar kingdom whose center of power was in the lower Volga steppes, and which vied with the caliphate over control of the Caucasus.
Other Muslim military ventures met with outright failure. Despite a naval victory over the Byzantines in 654 at the Battle of the Masts, the subsequent attempt to besiege Constantinople was frustrated by a storm which damaged the Arab fleet. Later sieges of Constantinople in 668-669 (674–78 according to other estimates) and 717-718 were thwarted with the help of the recently invented Greek fire. In the east, although Arabs were able to establish control over most Sasanian-controlled areas of modern Afghanistan after the fall of Persia, the Kabul region resisted repeated attempts of invasion and would continue to do so until it was conquered by the Saffarids three centuries later.
By the time of the Abbasid revolution in the middle of the 8th century, Muslim armies had come against a combination of natural barriers and powerful states that impeded further military progress. The wars produced diminishing returns in personal gains and fighters increasingly left the army for civilian occupations. The priorities of the rulers have also shifted from conquest of new lands to administration of the acquired empire. Although the Abbasid era witnessed some new conquests, such as that of Sicily and Crete, the period of rapid centralized expansion would now give way to an era when further spread of Islam would be slow and accomplished through the efforts of local dynasties, missionaries, and traders.
Non-Muslims under Islamic Rule
Local populations of Jews and indigenous Christians, marginalized as religious minorities and taxed heavily to finance the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars, often aided Muslims to take over their lands from the Byzantines and Persians, resulting in exceptionally speedy conquests. As new areas joining the Islamic State, they also benefited from free trade while trading with other areas in the Islamic State; so as to encourage commerce, in Islam trade is not taxed, wealth is taxed. The Muslims paid Zakat on their wealth to the poor. Since the Constitution of Medina was drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the Jews and the Christians continued to use their own laws in the Islamic State and had their own judges. Therefore, they only paid for policing for the protection of their property. To assist in the quick expansion of the state, the Byzantine and the Persian tax collection systems were maintained and the people paid a poll tax lower than the one imposed under the Byzantines and the Persians. Before Muhammad united the Arabs, they had been divided and the Byzantines and the Sassanid had their own client tribes that they would pay to fight on their behalf.
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