The methods of war among the Arabs were different from that of all the other races. In their battles they relied on offence and attack1 and their motivation was limited to: defending their idols,2 bloodlust,3 raiding and stealing cattle4, and increasing the status and position of their own tribes5. Their most important weapon was the sword6.
The role of Islām was changing the implements and their employment in battles and making appropriate use of them. The principles and beliefs through which Islām was manifested caused an increase in the spiritual and emotional uplifting of the soldiers and encouraged them to participate. Previously, an Arab soldier would be motivated by courage7, display of force8, a sense of loyalty9 and selfish motives10.
The most important mode of transport that were used was the camel11, as it was capable of going for long without water and was able to bear the dryness and sandstorms of the desert. The most important qualities of the ‘Arabian wars’ were as follows:
The Arab tribes were naturally linked to and reliant upon the economical and social status of their individual members. Because their land consisted of dry deserts lacking sufficient water, their objectives were:
a) Gaining water and control over the pastures and cattle12: Often times, wars would be fought in order to gain control over watering holes or springs and one of the sides would gain control either through a peace treaty or by force. During times of drought and famine, intense battles took place. When wars were fought for water, inhabitants of the dry lands were forced to migrate to other places that had sufficient water13.
When one tribe was envious of the wealth and prosperity of another, they would engage them in battle in order to loot their wealth and cattle14. The strong tribe was one that was able to overpower the weaker tribes and take their wealth. They would take all they wanted as booty. They would steal away their cattle and then return home victorious. Some of the Arab tribes even went so far as to march towards neighboring kingdoms15 and cities that had plenty of food stocks16. During the age of Jāhiliyya, wars and raids were one of the primary source of sustenance, possession of livestock and booty in times of drought and famine.
b) Bloodlust and revenge: This was caused by social events like marriage and divorce17, social interactions among the members of a tribe18, jealousy, malice and competition19, or because of the establishment of relations by the allies with other tribes.20
c) Increasing the status and power of the warring tribe: The fundamental principle was, ‘One who does not kill is killed and one who does not fight is fought’21. Also, once one tribe loses a battle, their power will never be regained and they are destined to destruction and annihilation and become incapable of defending themselves22.
d) Increasing the number of forces and soldiers in the army: The sources have not mentioned the size of the pagan Arab armies but they have noted that every tribe, with all its warriors, was considered one ‘army block’23, and these were the people who would engage the other tribes in battle. When the tribes would join forces, a large army would be formed24. The number of tribes that came together in a battle against the Greeks numbered 218 and consisted of more than ten thousand soldiers.
When we refer to the compendiums, lexicons and books of literature, we find that some Arabs paid much attention to the organization and creation of armies while some even independently25 joined their tribes and entered the battle. Nu’mān bin Mundhir had formed numerous organizations including the battalions called al-Shubhā’, al-Dawwasar26 and al-Radhā’i’27.
The following names indicate the number of forces of the various groups of fighters and the types of weapons they used:
Al-Raht – 3 to 10 people28.
Al-‘Usbah – 10 to 40 people29.
Al-Miqnab (al-Minsar) – 30 or 40 up to 300 on horseback30.
Al-Jumrah (al-Qabilah) – 300 to 1,000 on horseback.31
Al-Sariyah – 40 to 50032 and at the very least 5 to 300 people33.
Al-Kutayba – 100 to 1,000 people or from 400 to 10,000 people34.
Al-Jaysh (Faylaq or Juhfal) – 100 to 4,000 people35.
Al-Khamis – from 4,000 to 12,000 people36.
All these groups or units would be strengthened by the backing of another group. In this case, it would be called Kutaybah wa Jarrajah37 or Jarradah, Jayshin Lujab and Khamisin ‘Armum38. The person who commanded a force of more than a thousand would be known as Jarrarayn39.
The Kutayba (the group with between 100 and 1,000 people) and Jumrah (300 to 1,000 riders) were two of the most important groups in the wars of the Arabs before Islām. However, during the time of the Holy Prophet (S) the Sariyah (consisting of between 50 and 400 people) became the only important group in battle and this name can be found in many of the narrations from the companions40 because this number was also employed before the Hijrah.
The Sariyah was the smallest section of the army41 and could be formed even by only ten people. For this reason, it was also called ‘Asharatu Rahtin (a group of ten)42. The Prophet (S) would also send these groups with fewer or greater numbers. They have said: the best companions are four, the best Sirāya (pl. of Sariyah) is made up of four hundred, the best army consists of four thousand and at the most, not exceeding twelve thousand soldiers43.
e) Weapons: By going through the narratives and poetry of the Age of Ignorance (Jāhiliyyah) we find that there is frequent mention of weapons, and especially the ‘sword44’. Other weapons like the arrow, dagger, spear, spearhead, club, bow and the sling45 that were considered offensive weapons and were used in attacks are also found in their poetry. As for the defensive weapons, they included the armor, shield, helmet and the armor that was worn beneath the helmet46. These weapons would come from Syria, Yemen and India and some were also made locally.
The Arabs would also use some heavy weaponry like the catapult. The first person to use it was Judhayma al-Abrash47. Another weapon known as al-Dabbābah48 was first employed by ‘Abdullah ibn Ju’dah49. Later the Muslim Arabs modified this weapon and used its improved version in their wars50.
At that time, an Arab soldier would either fight on foot or on horseback. The most important mode of transport at wartime were horses51, and the forces would ride on them. Horses had some distinct advantages in war, especially speed and agility.
f) The Relationship between the Commander and the Soldiers: Affairs of war and military leadership of a tribe would be in the hands of the head of the tribe, a person who would have the qualities of forbearance, clemency, co-operation, patience, kindness etc52. All the soldiers, be they freemen or slaves, volunteers or those who have been forced to participate, hired or otherwise, all have to respond to the call for war by the commander and none of them are allowed to disobey him, whether they like it or not, except those who are excused because of being too young or sick. Of course, at times some of the wealthy would disobey the command to participate in battle and would in return pay the fine and penalty for not joining the battle53.
One of the commanders would draw up the plans for battle, allot commanders for each section, define the assignments, identify the goal and arm the forces. The responsibility for these tasks rested on his shoulders because of his superiority over the others and in the end he would take command over the forces54. Many of the Arabs in the age of Jāhiliyya were known for their training in archery and their expertise in it. They were able to hit small targets55 and would also train those who did not know archery.
g) Mobilization of forces and Recruitment: It was incumbent and obligatory [to fight] when the tribe needed to be defended or a general command had been issued. So in times of danger, all the people were mobilized. The men, old and young, small children and women too, would prepare and participate in the battle as much as they were able to56. Here we should mention two groups of fighters: (i) A group that was hired for an agreed sum. (ii) Another group that consisted of slaves who had to fight in the battle without any compensation and would have to stay and serve till the end of the battle. Those who would fight with all their might in order to defend themselves fought with strong will and determination whereas those who were forced to fight and were not paid anything, especially in times of hardship, would flee from the battle.
Conscription was not compulsory and would take place on an individual basis, not collectively. It would be carried out during attacks or in order to join the commander.57
Because of this torture, some prisoners would die while others would remain in their service as slaves, or alternatively a ransom could be given to secure their freedom60 or they would be granted a favor for which they would remain obliged61.
They would also use hostages62 to exact revenge for the deaths of those taken as prisoners. Just as the ‘Aus did with the Khazraj – they killed three of the slaves who had been taken as hostages (in retaliation for three killed prisoners)63.
i) Material Support and Backup: This consisted of the collective measures that an army would put in place for its troops including weapons, provisions, food, water etc. The goal behind making these arrangements and providing munitions that were necessary for long drawn-out wars was gaining victory over the enemy and this was achieved by using different means. The most important factors that assisted in sending support were:
Roads: The roads and paths that the pagan Arabs traversed in times of war have been not been clearly mentioned in historical records and some writings after the coming of Islām only give general indications about them. For example: in Ibn Kharadādibah’s al-Masālik wal-Mamālik, Ibn Hawqal’s al-Masālik wal-Mamālik, Mas’udi’s al-Tanbih wal-Ashrāf, Qazwini’s al-Bilād wa Akhbār al-‘Ibād and all the other books of battles and expeditions.
Similarly, the roads that were traversed by the armies of Islām in their conquests and battles have not been mentioned in detailed except in very few sources. Most of the paths that were used by the Muslim armies were the well known main roads and the most important among these were:
(i) Paths near the coasts and borders where water was plentiful and wells were many.
(ii) Roads that ran parallel to the Euphrates River that flowed from Iraq to Syria.
(iii) The routes between Yathrib (Madina) and Makkah or between Makkah and Iraq.
(iv) Roads that linked the cities and villages of the Arabian Peninsula64.
Weapons of War: In the age of Jāhiliyya, weapons of war constituted the most important part of munitions. In the beginning, a soldier would get armed before he went out to war, because no help would reach him during the battle. If, during the heat of battle, his sword broke or his arrows ran out, if he had extras he would exchange them, otherwise he would be unable to continue the fight.
Water and Food: The most important foods that were used in sending support to the fighting soldiers were dates and grapes that were grown in parts of Yemen and Tā’if. Fruits from the trees of Sidr and Miswāk, fish, barley bread and other foods were also sent. Dates were the staple food and Yathrib was known for its plentiful fresh dates. The Arabs were accustomed to eating less and would make to with a few dates for an entire day. When they were very hungry, they would eat animal hide, porcupines, lizards and meat of hunted animals65.
However, water was considered of strategic importance, because the routes chosen and roads taken would be determined by it and efforts would be made to secure drinking water and prevent the enemy from having access to it. This liquid of life was of great importance for the army that wished to set camp in a specific location and they would need to be near a source of water at all times. For this reason, they would take all the necessary measures to store as much water as possible. Ten guards would be posted at wells and springs66 and in front of man-made water storages large boulders would be placed67. These reservoirs would become even more important in times of war, and especially defense, when besieged, or in the hot summer months.
Clothes and Military Uniforms: The Arab soldiers of Jāhiliyya wore different varieties of clothes68, so fighters were indistinguishable for non-combatants, and the soldiers would look alike because of their similar turbans, armor, swords and other military equipment69. Turbans or caps were worn on the heads and the Jubba or a hooded garment, a shirt or a two-tone robe, trousers, a woolen cloth and striped Yemeni cloth would be worn and feet would be covered with shoes or sandals.
Tents: The tents were made of skin, wool, hair and fur70. The Arabs would only use tents at the start of battles, because their fighting style was that of ‘charge and attack’ and this was highly disorganized. For this reason, the army did not need to remain outside its area for long periods of time. The Muslim armies during the time of the Prophet (S) also did not use tents frequently for this very same reason71.
Modes of Transportation: The most important modes of transport were the horse and camel72. The horse was used because of its speed and control at all times and in different situations, be it during attacks, laying siege, face to face combat, ambush, night raids etc. Mares were especially used in night raids, attacks, chases, maneuvers and difficult tasks, and were more effective than stallions73. Khālid bin Walid used to fight battles while riding on a mare74. Similarly, mules were used in sieges and ambushes.
Many of those who fought on horseback were well known75, and they would observe the principles of combat to the letter. They did this by using the horses and concentrating their efforts on the weak points of the enemy’s defenses or on the weak and timid people76. As a result, they would be successful in opening up fissures in the line of defense, penetrating their ranks and creating terror and fright in their hearts77. Camels were not useful for battle78 but they could be used for transporting soldiers, weapons, munitions and provisions from place to place. This animal was known for its ability to bear hunger and thirst, move through the harsh desert and carry heavy loads over long distances.
Booty: All that was taken over by the army or tribe after it was victorious over its enemy was known as booty79. War booty became the property of the overpowering forces who could use it as they wished80. In the age of Jāhiliyya, one fourth of the booty81 was separated by the commander82. All that was acquired without war (al-Nashitah)83 and the booty that could not be divided (al-Fudhul) was reserved for the commander84.
A poet has described the booty in this verse:
Laka al-Rubā’u wal-Safāya
Wa Hukmuka wal-Nashitah wal-Fudhul85
In the same way, the killer would take possession of what the one who was killed had with him [on the battlefield]. With the advent of Islām, Khums was prescribed86. The law of Salab (that which was taken from one who was killed in battle) was left as it was.
The pagan Arabs fought wars with the great neighboring kingdoms and they would raid the bordering areas. These kingdoms would also use some tribes as a barrier against the invaders so that they could hinder them as much as possible.
During the advent of Islām, the Sassanids had control over some areas at the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, including the lands of Yemen, Bahrain and some areas to the east of the peninsula. Because they were neighbors with the Arabs87, they had no option but to deal with each other and each of them would take necessary measures to prevent the incursions of the other, whether through peace pacts or war.
Some of the steps taken by the Sassanids to this end included: pleasing members of some tribes88, making pacts89 and treaties of friendship with them, strengthening the borders90, building fortresses, creating forts and protective barriers around the cities, creating canals from rivers and seas and keeping patrol ships in order to prevent the incursion of the enemy, creating points of defense along the border and repelling the threats of attacking tribes. Aside from this, guard units were formed by the tribes in return for payment and compensation that was given to the heads of the tribes so that they would protect the borders. These tribes were used to protect some of the more remote areas and they would establish their repositories for storing weapons and food in their land.
It can be said that the Sassanids would utilize the Arabs in their wars. When the Arabs saw the oppression and cruelty of the Sassanids against their own people, they would break the pacts. Udhaynah91 the king of Tadmar rose up against the Sassanids (under Shāpur the First), fought a war against him and was victorious. However, the kings that came after Shāpur the First were able to gain victory over the Arabs, especially during the reign of Shāpur Dhul Aktāf92 the person who later made a peace treaty with the Arabs.93
By studying the wars of the Arabs against the Sassanids, we find that they were not united under the leadership of one commander94; because every tribe had its own head and it was not possible for him to give up his leadership. Disagreements among them was the norm and therefore they were not able to unite with other tribes. As a result, each one of them would rise up to defend itself without the assistance of another. Jealousy, malice and hatred was rife among them95; to such an extent that the Sassanids would incite some of the tribes to fight against others96. It is obvious that this had a tremendous impact in the wars that were fought against the enemies.
The Sassanids were always afraid of fighting in the desert, and they were unable to stand the lack of water and harsh conditions of these lands. When the Arabs fought against their ally, they would arrange to transfer water, camels and all that was necessary for war in the desert, to the army97. The enemy was never able to defeat the Arabs in their own land, because they were fully aware about the conditions of their land. The Arabs would sometimes take recourse to guerilla warfare98 and would attack the supply routes, stores and armories.
Intense battles between Arab tribes, and especially the ‘Adnānis99 - who were more inclined to combat and war100 - was commonplace; because they were nomads and were accustomed to the harshness of the desert and this made them rougher and more intrepid101. Many battles were fought between the Qahtānis102 and the ‘Adnānis103, between the Taghlub and Bani Hakr, and others104 and also between the Arabs and the Iranians105. The most important of these were:
Yawm al-Awārat al-Awwal106 that took place between Mundhir ibn Imra’ al-Qays and Bakr bin Wā’il.
Yawm al-Dahnā107 between the tribe of Bani Asad.
Yawm al-Kilāb al-Thāni108.
And others like Yawm Bi’āth that took place between the Aws and the Khazraj110.
By studying the details of these wars and battles, we find that the Arabs never used to fight for goals and purposes that were sensible and that had resulted from careful thought and consideration, rather their wars would have other motives, including tribal ones111. These types of war were continuous and never-ending, and as such, they would always be practicing [and preparing] for war. It was as if they were habituated to war or that they liked it and were inclined to it. During the advent of Islām, some of the warriors joined the army that was formed after the migration [to Madina] with the intention of defeating the enemy, who were living under harsh conditions and were able to establish themselves in other places112.
The distinguishing factor of the Arabs in their wars against the external enemies was that they would unite with other tribes in some battles, like in the battle of Dhi Qār113 that took place after the event of Yawm ‘Ayn Abāgh and in which they were victorious. However, they would [then] separate and fight internal battles against each other and this made them weak and led to their defeat114.