Battles in Early Islam

Battles in Early Islam

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In history one finds two types of wars: in one type the king or his son or brother led the army in the battlefield and in the other the battle was fought, won or lost by the generals on behalf of the monarch. In the latter type of battles the ruler himself did not go to the battleground at all.

In the past, barring a handful of examples, most military expeditions were led by the rulers. In the process the leader of the defeated army may go down fighting – often killed or captured and later executed.

But in the modern warfare the rulers do not need to go to the battleground. In fact there is now no fixed battlefield. In fact many Presidents or Prime Ministers do not even know the letter ‘b’ of the word battle. However, even in the pre-Medieval past we do have several examples of generals, and not the rulers, leading the armies on their own in the battlefields. They went on conquering new territories leaving the rulers thousands of kilometres behind in the political capital of the empire.

The two phenomena need to be examined in proper perspective. One may find very few examples of generals securing victories in ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. In most big battles the rulers themselves led the armies.

It was after the rise of Islam that this concept of generals securing the victories actually gained acceptance. However, till 18th and 19th centuries the common practice was that the Emperors themselves used to lead the armies. Even Napoleon himself led his army to Moscow in the east and Egypt in the south. He, and not his general, lost final battle at Waterloo in 1815.

True, in the past there were some cases of kings sending their generals to war and remaining stuck to their thrones. But that was only when the enemy was insignificant or weak. The rulers of the past would not risk sending an army under any general when the enemy was really formidable.

However, with the advent of Islam started a new phenomenon. After the peaceful conquest of Makkah about 1,420 years ago most of the early Muslim victories were possible because of the sheer bravery, tact and efforts of the generals, most of whom were not even remotely related to the Prophet or the caliph of the time. Kinship was not at all the factor in selecting the generals. Before embracing Islam these generals were small time unknown people. It is very significant that most of the early Islamic generals led very small armies against very reputed and hugely well-equipped armies and won convincingly.

This phenomenon started with the expedition to Yemen, which was led by a very young general, Osama Bin Zayed. It was none else but Prophet Mohammad (may Allah bless and greet him), who reposed full faith in the young Osama.

After the Prophet, during the years of Caliphate, it was the generals who secured all the victories. Islamic Empire became the fastest growing empire in the world history, yet the rulers never left the capital to conquer any territory. This was a unique phenomenon. Only once Umar, the Second Caliph, went to Jerusalem to sign an agreement.

The caliphs would get the information many weeks after the victories in the battlefields, sometimes as far as 1,000 to 2,000 kms away from Madinah, the capital of Islamic Empire. This practice continued even later. Generals like Tariq bin Ziad, who conquered Spain in 711, led the army several thousand kilometres away from the headquarters, that is, the place from where the caliphs used to operate. During his time it was Damascus and not Madinah, which was the capital. Similar was the case with young Mohammad Bin Qasim, who conquered Sind in 712 C.E.

Most of these generals had to fight on their own and chalk out their own strategies. Earlier generals like Saad bin Abi Waqas, Abu Obaida bin al-Jarrah, Khalid bin Walid, Amr bin Al A’as or even decades later Mohammad bin Qasim or Tariq bin Ziad had hardly any blood relation with the rulers of the time. At the most one can give the example of Muhammad bin Qasim, the son-in-law and nephew of governor Hajjaj bin Yusuf.

But then what led to their successive victories and that too against the then global powers, the Romans and the Persians? With the leader – that is caliph – nowhere in the battlefield the only thing which led to the repeated victories was their ideological zeal and commitment, which Prophet Muhammad infused in them. Therefore they just did not need the presence of their leader in the battleground. This was one of the unique features of the political expansion of early Muslim power. At places the enemy even gave up without fighting and in several places these Islamic generals were even invited by the people to invade their countries as their rulers had become corrupt and intolerable.

This practice of general-led armies securing victories continued among Muslims till late in the history, though not in its purest form. In contrast during the Crusade years the Christian armies of Europe were often led by the kings and nobles, for example, Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard-I and Fredrick. King Richard-I came all the way from England to unsuccessfully fight General Salahuddin Ayyubi led-army. The latter too was a small-time soldier who later rose to lead a Muslim army, which ultimately snatched back Al-Aqsa from the Christian in 1187.

When mothers, sisters, and wives of the defeated Christian crusaders appealed to him, he released all arrested. In addition, he provided them transport to leave the city. There was neither any massacre nor looting. He gave amnesty to all citizens. He granted freedom to Christians to leave the city if they paid a small tribute. In fact Salahuddin paid it, himself, for about 10,000 poor Christians and his brother for seven thousand.

That was a different period. In the later centuries the zeal for the spread of Islam gradually weakened. Wars, as elsewhere in the world, became synonymous with expansion and conquest. Muslim emperors themselves led their armies to victories for the sake of worldly gain and expansion of territories. The contrast in two types of wars is quite clear.