The Expansion (Early Islam, #3)

Welcome back to the third and last part of our exploration of early Islam in history and (this time, more) board games! We’ve already seen the power of Muhammad’s revelation and his shrewd statecraft. Now, at Muhammad’s death, we find Arabia united under the banner of Islam. Today, we’ll look at the succession of Muhammad in Arabia, the campaigns for Syria and Iraq, and finally, Islamic expansion into the wider world.

The Ridda Wars

At Muhammad’s death, his greatest legacy showed: He had not only united Arabia with his religious revelation and his political decisions, but also built an administrative structure solid enough to withstand the shock of his death and keep expanding.

Abu Bakr soon emerged as Muhammad’s successor: He had been one of the prophet’s first followers and had made the Hijrah to Medina with Muhammad. And he came from the Quraysh elite. Thus, he was acceptable to both Medinan and Meccan Muslims. Abu Bakr’s position was referred to as that of Caliph (successor). Like Muhammad, he combined political and religious leadership.

Not everybody accepted Abu Bakr’s claim. Some tribes (especially those of the desert) abandoned the Islamic state. Winning them back by force proved a direct continuation of Muhammad’s struggle to unify Arabia. As the faithless tribes were considered apostates, the campaigns against them were named Ridda [=apostasy] Wars.

In addition, the Islamic state continued its struggle for the allegiance of the Arabic tribes bordering the rich lands of Syria and Iraq which Muhammad had already begun in his lifetime. These campaigns also provided an outlet for the numerous Muslim warriors who had come to live well of their share of plunder during Muhammad’s campaigns. That is neatly captured in a rule of Jihad! Rise of Islam 632—732 (Stephen Newberg, Compass Games): Muslim troops that have not attacked in a given turn are prone to rebellion. With this inherent need to win spoils, the Islamic state was bent on continued expansion.

To break out of the Arabian peninsula, the Muslims needed to take either the Levant or Mesopotamia. Map of Byzantium (Martin Wallace, Warfrog Games).

Syria and Iraq

Until now, the Muslim tribes of Arabia had only fought other Arabian tribes. In Syria and Iraq, however, they took on two of the greatest empires of the ancient world (Byzantium and Sasanian Persia), fought both of them at the same time, and won against both.

In the struggle for Syria, the Muslims first extended their hands towards the tribes on the border. Whichever they could not entice to join, they subdued. Then, they went for the destruction of the Byzantine armies. In August 636, the Muslim army faced a numerical superior Byzantine force at the Yarmuk river. For several days, the two armies engaged in skirmishes, in which the Muslim commander Khalid ibn al-Walid held back his troops and fought defensively to conserve his limited strength. Only when the Byzantines had been worn out without achieving a breakthrough did Khalid counter-attack. His light cavalry cut off the Byzantine infantry and inflicted heavy losses. When the Byzantines broke and retreated, another Muslim cavalry force which Khalid had detached from the main force before the last day of the battle already lay in waiting for them. While Byzantine power in Syria was not entirely broken, Byzantine morale was. On the other hand, the Muslims had now successfully broken out of Arabia and their victory against the great Byzantine Empire gave them the air of invincibility. More and more volunteers flocked to the banner of Islam to participate in the raiding, conquering, and, eventually, settling of new lands.

Despite the importance of the Battle at the Yarmuk, there is only one game that is dedicated to it: Yarmuk (Adrian McGrath/Chris Smith, XTR Corp) is a straightforward tactical-level hex and counter game in the mold of the Great Battles of History system (albeit a bit simpler).

Once the Byzantine armies were defeated, the Islamic armies reduced the walled cities by force, or, more commonly, brokered treaties with them. By 641, they controlled all of Syria.

The campaign for Iraq began the same way: First, the Islamic state won over the desert tribes. Unlike Syria, however, the Muslim armies suffered setbacks in Iraq. Their Sasanian counterparts blunted their advance and then utterly defeated them in the Battle of the Bridge (fall 634) – the first and only battle of the Islamic expansion in which the Muslims suffered heavy casualties. Fortunately for them, the Sasanians could not capitalize on their victory, as internal strife led to their victorious army being recalled to the capital. In the meantime, Umar (Abu Bakr’s successor as Caliph) had to solve the manpower crisis caused by the casualties: In the end, he allowed the tribes which had abandoned the Islamic cause after Muhammad’s death to provide volunteers. That more than made up for the losses sustained in the Battle of the Bridge. The Muslim armies renewed their offensives and decisively beat the Sasanians at al-Qadisiyyah (638).

The Islamic Expansion

Umar wanted to retain Iraq and let the Sasanians keep the rest of their empire. As they were bent on re-taking Iraq, nothing came of the peace proposals. Instead, the Sasanian counter-offensives were parried. Their empire would be destroyed by the Muslim armies over the next decade. Thus, the last Middle Eastern empire of antiquity was gone – and so was antiquity. The Middle Ages began. The Muslim armies marched on into Central Asia and modern-day Pakistan.

At the same time, Muslim armies also advanced in all other directions. They took the fight into the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia and besieged Constantinople itself several times (but couldn’t take it as their fleet could not match the Byzantine navy).

After one century of continous expansion, Muslims controlled an area from Spain in the northwest to Sindh in the southeast. Map of Jihad! The Rise of Islam, ©Compass Games.

As the conquest of Syria had cut the Byzantine possessions in North Africa off from Anatolia, Egypt was easy prey for the advancing Muslims. Over the next decades, they continued their march along the coast of North Africa until they crossed over into Spain. In the 8th century, their advance in Europe was checked by the Frankish Empire.

Nonetheless, the rapid Islamic expansion had shaken its opponents to the core. The Byzantines, for example, deduced that it was Islam’s prohibition of images that made its armies so successful, and embarked on a comparative course for their own religion (thus deepening the existing rifts between their eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) Christianity.

Card Iconoclasm from The First Jihad: The Rise of Islam 632-750 (Wes Erni/Ben Madison, White Dog Games).

Of course, the impact of the Islamic expansion was nowhere bigger than in the conquered countries itself. Wherever the Arabian armies went, they settled their deserving warriors as the core of a future Islamic society. Thus, Arabic remains the official language from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east. Coupled with the conversion of the native populations, that resulted in an immense Muslim population. However, the Islamic state began to fracture a few decades after Muhammad’s death. Political and religious disputes broke Islamic unity into several smaller states.

Today, Islam is the majority religion in more than 50 countries. Around two billion people follow – in their various ways – the teachings of Muhammad.

Games Referenced

Jihad! Rise of Islam 632—732 (Stephen Newberg, Compass Games)

Byzantium (Martin Wallace, Warfrog Games)

Yarmuk (Adrian McGrath/Chris Smith, XTR Corp)

The First Jihad: The Rise of Islam 632—750 (Wes Erni/Ben Madison, White Dog Games)

Further Reading

Muhammad’s life is told in a scholarly, but accessible way (as long as you are willing to skip over some very detailed parts on the Arabian tribes) in William Montgomery Watt’s two-volume biography: Muhammad at Mecca, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here) and Muhammad at Medina, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here).

For the period that followed Muhammad’s death, see Donner, Fred McGraw: The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1981 (online here, free registration required).


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