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Military conquest was important in the spread of Islam. Within twenty years after the death of Muhammad much of the Middle East had been conquered; within one hundred years Islam stretched from Spain to India. Muslim armies, fortified by gunpowder, professional armies, and revolutionary military techniques and tactics, experienced overwhelming global success until the nineteenth century.
The spread of Islam and the conquests of Muslim armies in the decades that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE were events of world historical significance that have had far-reaching consequences down to our own time. By 650 CE, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran had been conquered. Under the Umayyad dynasty (661– 750 CE) the Islamic caliphate stretched from Spain in the west to India in the east and from southern Arabia to Central Asia. Although the caliphate dissolved into many Muslim states as early as the eighth century, Islam continued to spread among new peoples, including the Turks and the Persians, who both were to play major roles in Islamic history. Although no Muslim state existed in Spain by the sixteenth century, Islam made new advances in the Balkans and central Europe under the Ottoman Turks (c. 1300–1922). Of the major sixteenth-century Islamic empires, the Ottomans controlled parts of Hungary, the Balkans, Anatolia, and most of the Middle East, the Safavids (1501–1722/1736) ruled over Persia and parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Mughals (1526–1857) conquered much of India. Although military conquest was important in the spread of Islam, in territories outside the effective radius of Muslim armies, such as the Indonesian archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, and parts of Africa, mass conversion was achieved via merchants and missionaries, making the spread of Islam in those regions a cultural rather than a military advance.
Expansion of Islam
Historians have tried to explain the remarkably swift and enduring Muslim conquests in many ways. Some have stressed the relative weakness of their opponents; others have stressed the effects of the plague or the power of the new religion (Islam) and ideology (jihad). Still others have emphasized the personal qualities of the first caliphs, the Ottoman sultans, and the founders of the Safavid and Mughal empires, as well as the valor of Muslim fighters. To this long list we should add the ability of Muslim rulers to establish professional armies and effective state bureaucracies and financial organizations.
Building on the foundations of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (reigned 634–644), the caliph who established the first garrison towns and the first registers of the names and salaries of the troops, the Umayyads completed the transformation of a tribal migration into a professional army. Around 700 CE, the soldiers in the garrison cities throughout the caliphate might have numbered some 250,000 men. The soldiers were paid in minted coins and supported by an efficient logistical system and bureaucracy.
Starting in the 830s, the Abbasid dynasty (749/750–1258) began to recruit Turkish-speaking mounted archers from Central Asia, predominantly as slave soldiers. Though only a couple of thousand in number, their new military technique (mounted archery), tactics (feigned retreat), skills in horsemanship, and superior horses added considerably to Muslim armies’ speed, maneuverability, and firepower. Soon, most Muslim armies were dominated by Turkish soldiers.
The military slave system not only revolutionized Muslim warfare, it also had far-reaching political consequences. Recruited from among outsiders with no “political baggage” and entirely dependent on the state for its subsistence, the slave soldiers were a loyal and effective force. Isolated from the rest of the society, however, their main concern was to preserve their status by dominating the government and policy. This led to the Abbasids’ loss of control over their empire and the emergence of local dynasties and military dictatorships as well as to bitter wars among competing dynasties.
In the west, the Spanish Umayyads (756–1031), Almohads (1130–1269), and the Nasrids (1230–1492) not only held on to their conquests for shorter or longer periods in Spain, they also established flourishing cultural centers (Cordova, Seville, Granada). In the east, the Turkish Ghaznavids of Afghanistan (977– 1187) spread Islam to the Punjab, laying the foundations of the religious division of the Indo-Afghan frontier, the latest consequences of which have been the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the conflict between Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India.
In the wars within Islam, the division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims played a crucial role. The Shi’a Buyids (c. 945–1055) and Fatimids (909–1171) launched several campaigns against their Sunni rivals. The Buyids’ rule was ended by the Sunni Seljuks (1038–1157), while the Fatimid Empire was extinguished by Saladin (1137/38–1193), the founder of the Ayyubids of Egypt (1169–1252). Saladin also distinguished himself against the crusaders, defeating them in the battle of Hattin (1187) and recapturing Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest place.
Of the conflicts with non-Muslims, the Mongol invasion in the 1250s had far greater impact on the history of the Islamic heartlands than the crusades. In 1258 Hulegu, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan’s grandson, eliminated the last vestiges of the Abbasid caliphate. However, in 1260 the Mongols were defeated in Syria and driven back by the Mamluks of Egypt. The Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517) was the most sophisticated of the military states set up by Turkish slave soldiers in the Middle East, with a mobilizable professional cavalry numbering between forty thousand and seventy thousand in the late thirteenth century.
The experience of the various Islamic states with firearms varied greatly, and the nature, success, or failure of this experience depended on historical, social, economic, and cultural factors rather than on religion. The Ottomans were especially successful in integrating gunpowder technology into their land forces and navy. Preceding their Muslim and Christian rivals, in the fifteenth century the Ottomans set up permanent troops specialized in the manufacturing and handling of firearms: artillerymen, armorers, bombardiers, grenadiers, and the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite slave soldiers, recruited through the child levy from among the empire’s Christian population. The Ottomans also established a robust arms industry that made their empire largely self-sufficient in weapons and ammunition until the mid-eighteenth century. Favorable geopolitical location, ample resources, efficient central and provincial bureaucracy, talented statesmen, well-trained and well-equipped professional soldiers, and superior logistics made the Ottoman army—with deployable troop strength of eighty to one hundred thousand—a formidable force.
Before the Nineteenth Century
Eurocentric narratives of Islamic history concentrate on the clash between Crescent and Cross, as well as on the supposed superiority of the “West.” But wars within Islam and against non-Muslim enemies other than Christians were equally important. Similarly, the triumph of the West is largely a phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and to project that triumph back into earlier centuries is anachronistic.
While the Ottomans devoted considerable resources to their wars against their Christian opponents (Byzantium, Venice, Hungary, Habsburg Spain and Austria, Portugal, and Russia), they also absorbed a dozen or so Turkish-Muslim principalities in Anatolia (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), were defeated by Timur (1402), destroyed the Mamluk sultanate (1516–1517), and fought countless and exhausting wars against their Safavid Shi’a neighbor, Persia.
For the Safavids, not Portuguese imperialism, but the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Shaybanid Uzbeks of Transoxania were the major threat. Safavid rule was ended by the Ghilzai Afghans of Kandahar in 1722. The Afghans in turn were overthrown by Nadir Shah (1736–1747), an able Turkmen general from Khorasan. Nadir waged wars against Persia’s traditional enemies, the Ottomans and Mughals.
When Muslim and Christian armies clashed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Muslims usually had the upper hand. All this changed in the late eighteenth century. Russian success against the Ottomans (1768–1774, 1783, 1787–1791) and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798) signaled the shift in power between Islam and the West.
The Long Nineteenth Century
In response to European expansion, nineteenth century Muslim rulers attempted to modernize their armies along European lines. While initial reforms concentrated on the technical aspects of warfare and thus brought only limited results, the destruction of the Janissaries by Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808– 1839); the introduction of conscription by Muhammad Ali of Egypt (reigned 1805–1848) in the 1820s and by the Ottomans in 1838; and the establishment of military and naval academies and schools, staff colleges, and war ministries in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire were more significant reforms. Modernized Egyptian and Ottoman armies were successful against local guerrilla forces and insurrections, but were defeated by the combined forces of nationalism and Great Power imperialism. France occupied Algeria in 1830, while Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, chiefly to control the Suez Canal. Due to Great Power intervention, a series of national states were carved out in the Ottoman Balkans, and by 1878 Istanbul had lost most of the peninsula. But thanks to improved administration and communication made possible by the railway and the telegraph, the Ottomans not only kept Anatolia and the Arab lands, but under Abdulhamid II (reigned 1876–1908) they asserted firmer control over these lands.
During the nineteenth century, warfare also became more destructive for noncombatants. Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Armenian Christian rebels, insurgents, and guerrilla forces, often with Russian support, killed Muslim civilians in the Balkans and Anatolia. Ottoman irregulars, often composed of recently arrived Muslim refugees expelled from Russian-conquered lands, and the regular Ottoman army retaliated with ferocity. About 600,000 Armenians perished in the Armenian massacres of 1915–1916 alone, while the number of Ottoman Muslim victims— those who perished or were killed or expelled from territories occupied by Christians—between 1821 and 1922 is estimated at about 10 million.
The military came to play an important role in politics. In the Ottoman Empire, the coup of the “Young Turk” officers restored the constitution and left the government in civilian hands until 1913, when a military dictatorship took over. When the empire was defeated, occupied, and truncated by the victors of World War I, another Young Turk officer, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), led a successful war of liberation and created a secular nation-state, the Turkish republic. In Persia, Reza Khan, the leader of a Cossack brigade, seized power in 1921 and proclaimed himself Shah in 1925, ending the rule of the Qajars (1794–1925) and establishing the Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran until the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The Twentieth Century
From the end of World War II until the Suez Crisis in 1956, Britain and France dominated the heartlands of Islam. By creating states with artificial boundaries, they planted the seeds of future border disputes and wars (including, for example, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990). The creation of Israel in 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war had profound consequences for the future. For the victorious Jews it seemed that war and land grab rather than negotiations was the effective way to deal with the Arabs. For the Palestinians, of whom 700,000 became refugees, the war sent a similarly erroneous message: if they were to regain their homeland, they had to destroy the Jewish state, a policy abandoned only in 1988 when the PLO issued a call for a Palestinian state to coexist with Israel.
The Israeli-Arab conflict has involved various forms of organized violence. There have been atrocities and terror committed by both sides: open wars (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973); Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967; Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982; unarmed Palestinian uprising; armed insurrection and guerrilla war against Israeli occupation; Palestinian assassinations and suicide bombers targeting Israeli soldiers, settlers, and civilians; Israeli-targeted assassinations of leaders of Palestinian military, paramilitary, and political organizations thought to be responsible for attacks on Israel; and punitive demolition of homes of Palestinian militants, terrorists, and their relatives.
The superpowers were soon involved in the region, for economic reasons such as oil and political reasons such as containing Communism or imperialism (depending on the superpower). Instead of becoming directly involved militarily, the superpowers tried to tip the balance of power by arming their clients. The ensuing arms race made wars very destructive. In the Iraq-Iran war, in which Iraq’s use of chemical weapons outraged the world, some 1.5 million perished. Revolutions and military coups of various types also plagued the region.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole superpower. The United States has established several military bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Its role in the first Gulf War, its treatment of Iraq in the following ten years, and its strategic partnership with and support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestine conflict has fueled rage against the United States throughout the Muslim world. Anti-Americanism has been exploited by militant Islamist extremists whose terrorist attacks have targeted the United States and its allies, reminding the world that even the militarily most sophisticated and economically strongest societies are vulnerable. Continuing resistance to the United States and the U.S.-backed governments in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown the limits of Western armies in asymmetrical warfare.
On September 11, 2001, followers of Osama bin Laden, then based in Afghanistan, hijacked four civilian airplanes and flew two of them into the World Trade Center “twin towers,” landmark skyscrapers in New York that both burned to the ground; the third plane hit and burned part of the Pentagon, and the fourth crash-landed in western Pennsylvania. President George W. Bush responded by declaring a “War on Terror,” and the United States quickly invaded Afghanistan. With help from a few European governments, the Americans soon drove so-called Taliban fighters who sympathized with bin Laden from most of Afghanistan and installed an ineffective new government. Bush then attacked Iraq in 2002, where Saddam Hussein’s brutal, secular government precariously presided over an Arab majority, bitterly divided between Sunni and Shi’a forms of Islam (resembling Catholic–Protestant conflict of past times) and a discontented Kurdish-speaking Sunni population in the north. Easy initial victories in Iraq provoked years of sporadic violence, until 2008 when the Americans negotiated an agreement with an elected (but dubiously popular) government and promised to withdraw U.S. armed forces from Iraq within a few months. In the meantime, however, Taliban fighters had regained control of much of Afghanistan. Peace seems unlikely in any near future, especially since Muslim anger was heightened in late 2008 when Israel attacked Palestinians in Gaza with tanks and artillery.
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