The first encounter between Roman and Muslim forces (7th century AD) – Motivation & Tactics of the Muslim side

“After the consolidation of the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, Mohammad determined to unite all the Arab speaking people under the banner of Islam. In 629, he began sending exploratory forces into Syria and Iraq to offer a stick or a carrot to the large contingents of Arabs in those areas.

At the same time, Heraclius was trying to rebuild the Empire after the decisive but costly defeat of Persia in 628. Byzantium was “trying to reconstruct their tribal alliances from the ground up, extending their ties among the Syrian and northern Hijazi nomadic groups in order to form the defensive coalitions needed to guard Syria from the southeast. It was, just this effort to extend their political control over these tribes that made the Byzantines appear such a threat to the Muslims, who also aspired to bring the tribes under control”. A conflict between the two empires was inevitable. It was a war, which would pit a brilliantly led and highly motivated force against the most sophisticated military machine in the region. Both sides would be surprised and frustrated by their enemy.

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What motivated the Muslim forces?

The Muslim armies were a highly motivated force with almost mythical morale in the face of powerful enemies. Much of this can be attributed to the fervor their young religion instilled in the force, but the promise of paradise was far from the only force motivating the conquering armies.

Clan solidarity was a powerful force in the Arab culture; loyalty to the clan and tribe was more important than any other form of morality. This loyalty ethic was extended to the entire umma (community of Islam) by Mohammad. Within the umma soldiers were highly respected and “success in war gave them the prestige and the means to find resources beyond those of pastoralism”.

Prestige was not the only resource a Muslim warrior earned. There were tremendous economic rewards as well. Lists or diwan were kept of all warriors on campaign so they could be paid cash salaries. These salaries were paid for life and grew larger the more campaigns the warrior fought. Even more lucrative was the division of spoils after a battle, when each man was given a portion of all captured equipment, money, horses and even people. Persons snatched in a raid or during a route would often be ransomed.

Bravery was especially rewarded in the Muslim army. A “warrior who won a duel took all the possessions of his vanquished foe, and this was apart from his normal share of the spoils taken in battle”. The possessions of an enemy leader vanquished in a duel would frequently include prized body armor and weapons. Furthermore, generals would give extra gifts to soldiers who did well in a battle (as much as 10,000 dirhams, roughly the yearly salary of a general). The combination religious, societal and economic rewards greatly motivated the Muslim armies.

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Muslim Tactics

Muslim tactics during their early wars were creative and played to their strengths. They exploited their knowledge of the deserts, used the tenets of their religion to undermine enemies, and used their native skills to counter more traditional military prowess.

The Arabs were at home in the desert and used the wastes as both a highway and a sanctuary. They moved rapidly in and out of the desert with “camels providing the main means of transport of men and materials”. The camel was an integral and crucial part of the Muslim army, providing strategic transportation for forces, moving logistics trains and in emergency, acting as a food and water reserve for the forces. The Muslim armies “were extremely light and mobile, and their tactics consisted of a wild charge, of advance and retreat and turning movements, cutting communications and supplies”. Endless tribal warfare had made them expert guerillas. Their skill had been famous for centuries. Ammianus Marcellinus, almost 150 years before Mohammad, talks of Malechus, an Arab leader who had worked for Sassanids coming to surrender to Julian after a major Byzantine victory: “they were gladly received since they were well suited to guerilla warfare”.

Islam provided the Arabs advantages on campaign. It was not long before their enemies knew that an unbeliever “even if overtaken in arms fighting against the Muslims, had only to call out profession of faith and his life must be spared”. This chance for mercy and even assimilation enabled the Muslims to gain new recruits and gave enemies an alternative to fighting to the death.

Desert life did not give the Muslims experience with heavy cavalry similar to their more advanced enemies, but it did give them skills, which could counter the cavalry. They learned to use spears “with devastating effect against cavalry charges”. Caltrops were also used to impede the advance of cavalry. Most importantly, “Muslims’ archers may have shielded their cohorts from the full force of the Sassanian and Byzantine heavy cavalry and thereby neutralized their superiority in this respect”.

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The first encounter of Roman and Muslim forces

In 629, Mohammad ordered several of his generals to take armies in different directions to locate and attempt to convert other Arab speaking peoples to Islam. He also sent the famous letter to the rulers of the world, including Heraclius, giving them the opportunity to convert. It was an audacious move and one that would certainly lead to war.

One of these armies of conversion moved northward from Madina to convert the Ghassanid Arabs from the Nestorian Christianity. This led to the first encounter between the Muslims and the Byzantines near the town of Mu’tah on the southern edge of Palestine in 629. At first, the Muslims tried to negotiate a conversion, but the offer was rejected. Next, a Muslim raiding force was sent to the area to extract revenge for the killing of an emissary by the Ghassanid Arabs.

The raiding party encountered a large force of Ghassanid infantry possibly backed by a small contingent of Byzantine soldiers in flat area adjacent to a date grove. The leader of the Muslims, Zeid ibn Haritha, followed the tradition of the wars of conversion in Arabia and ordered a charge into the Byzantine force. The Muslims were rapidly cut down and several prominent leaders killed. Khalid ibn al-Walid, the same leader who just a few years ago had defeated Mohammad at Uhud but was newly converted to Islam, took command. Khalid recognized the situation was untenable and “then by retiring methodically, the survivors under Khalid’s firm leadership, withdrew from the field”.

The first encounter between a Byzantine force and a Muslim force had not gone well for the Muslims. Khalid saved the army and the Muslims promoted a brilliant leader, but the Ghassanid auxiliaries held the field. Ironically, this easy victory may have convinced the Byzantines that the Muslims were not a serious threat which contributed to Heraclius’s decision later to cut the subsidy to the Ghassanids.”

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(Source: ARAB-BYZANTINE WAR 629-644 AD, by LCDR David Kunselman)

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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