Great Muslim Generals

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

In Khalid ibn al-Waleed, ‘Amr ibn Al ‘Asi, Imad and Nur Eddin Zangi, Salah Eddin, Baybars, Bayazid, Mohammed II, etc, Islam produced some of the most astounding army commanders in history. It is a reflection of the dire situation of Muslim scholarship today that the greatness of such generals is not recognised and amply described. 1 It is also a great reflection of how bias non-Muslim scholarship is in not recognising the great place in history of such men. It is, indeed, quite edifying to note the place given to such great men of Western history, for instance, the likes of Alexander, Julius Cesar, Napoleon, Rommel, etc, but no place whatsoever to the Muslim commanders. 2 Yet, when the facts of history are looked at, it is impossible to find similar men of great stature. As George Bell, the publisher of Simon Ockley, an early historian fervently hostile to Islam, holds in the opening section of his work on the History of the Muslims (which he calls Saracens):

‘With the Koran in one hand, and the scimitar in the other, the impetuous and indomitable Arabs achieved a series of splendid victories unparalleled in the history of nations: for in the short space of eighty years that mighty range of Saracenic conquest embraced a wider extent of territory than Rome had mastered in the course of eight hundred.’ 3

It is, indeed, and after all, the Muslim early generals such as Khaleed (Khalid) ibn al-Waleed, ‘Amr Ibn al-As and Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas who in just a matter of a few weeks, two months at most, terminated the power of two of the mightiest empires that have ever dominated history: the Byzantines and the Persians. What is remarkable is that the Muslims fought with much inferior numbers and much less equipped armies, and yet won nearly every battle they fought with these two empires, which had dominated world history for hundreds of years until the Muslims arrived onto the scene. The genius of Khalid ibn al-Waleed at the battle of Al-Yarmuk, in August 636, and how he organised the Muslim armies, and how he destroyed the whole Byzantine army in one swoop is quite remarkable. 4 His crossing of the desert prior to that to outflank the Byzantines is one of the great feats of tactical warfare. 5 The role of ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Asi in the capture of Egypt, and how he removed Byzantine power from that country, his military genius, and tactical awareness in using the smaller Muslim resources is possibly unique in history. 6 Likewise, the way Tarik Ibn Ziyad led the Muslim armies in al-Andalus, just over 12,000 men, and led them into victory against the mighty Visigoth army (which had before then crushed the might of Rome), and which numbered over 100,000, at the Battle of the Guadalete in 711 is yet again, as Scott remarks:

‘The battle of the Guadalete is justly ranked with the great and decisive victories of the world. Indeed, if we consider the relative number of the combatants, the duration of the action, and the importance of its results, it has no parallel in the annals of warfare.’ 7

It is also one of the greatest and most decisive moments of history when the Mamluks, inspired by the future sultan of Egypt, Baybars, inflicted the first military defeat on the Mongols at Ain Jalut, in 1260, something no other army could do. 8 That same Baybars had ten years before led the Mamluks in their annihilation of Louis IX’s crusade, possibly one of the most powerful crusade armies ever to invade the Muslim world.

The place of Turkish army commanders is also remarkable. It is impossible to dwell on the role of Othman who established the foundations of modern Turkey, or his son, Orkhan, the conqueror of Bursa, or of Bayazid who destroyed the greatest crusader army of the late middle Ages in 1396 at Nicopolis, or Selim I who literally smashed every single army that came in the way of Islam, or Murad II who destroyed yet another huge crusader force at Varna in 1444. 9 The list of Turkish seamen who ruled the seas, Khayr-Eddin Barbarossa, in particular, who is responsible for helping France remain independent, is an endless list dating from the times when the Turkish navy ruled supreme. 10 Here, in this outline, only Mohammed II the conqueror of Constantinople is looked at. 11

Of course, many such men, besides being army commanders, were state builders as well, which is remarkable, and some of them, Barbarossa, for instance, were also scholars, writers and men of literature, which is also a great Muslim point of strength.

It is not right, of course, to forget the great Muslim army leaders who lived nearer our time. Amongst these there can be cited the Algerians, Hadj Ahmed and Emir Abd Al-Kader, who fought and nearly broke French colonial power. 12 Their example was followed many decades later by younger and yet equally determined heroic figures of the Algerian war of Liberation (1954-1962), men like Ben M’hidi, Ben Boulaid, Didouche Murad, Amirouche, etc.. Libya too had a great men of universal proportions, Umar al-Mukhtar, a man who, despite his old age (60s), fought till his death one of the great colonial power, Italy, with all its superior armada, and technological knowhow, for the liberation of his country. 13

All these men deserve a much better acknowledgment, yet the dire state of Muslim scholarship fails to see their great place in world history, a place which is recognised in some Western works, on which the following relies to highlight the role played by some of these most unique men in Muslim and world history, beginning with Khalid ibn al-Waleed.

Reading List

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Notes:

  1. With some exceptions such as in the works of early Muslim historians:
    -Beha Eddin: The Life of Saladin; London, Palestine Pilgrim’s text Society, 1897.
    -Ibn Shaddad: Al-Nawadir al-Sultaniyya, ed J. El-Shayyal; Cairo; 1964.
    -Imad Eddin al-Isfahani: Al Fath al-Qusi fi ‘l Fath al-Qudusi; Landberg Ed; Leiden; 1888.
    Or more recent ones such as A.I. Akram: Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed; Maktabah; Publishers and Distributors; Birmingham; England; 2004.
  2. With very rare exceptions such as:
    -N. Elisseeff: Nur al-Din: Un Grand Prince Musulman de Syrie au Temps des Croisades; Damascus; 1967.
    -S. Lane Poole: Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; Beirut; Khayats; 1964.
  3. Henry George Bell in S. Ockley: History of the Saracens; George Bell and Sons; London; 1890; Advertisement.
  4. W.E. Kaegi: Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests; Cambridge University Press; 1992.
  5. J.B. Glubb: The Great Arab Conquests; Hodder and Stoughton; 1963.
  6. A.J. Butler: The Arab Conquest of Egypt, Oxford 1902.
  7. S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; in 3 vols; The John Lippincott Company; Philadelphia; 1904; vol 1; p. 232.
  8. P. Thorau: The Lion of Egypt; tr by P.M. Holt; Longman; London; 1992
  9. N. Jorga: Notes et Extraits; Pour Servir a l’Histoire des Croisades au XVem Siecle; 2 vols; Paris; Ernest Leroux; 1899; II.
  10. See most particularly:
    G. Fisher: The Barbary Legend; Oxford; 1957.
  11. F. Babinger: Mehmed the Conqueror; tr. from German by R. Manheim; ed by W.C. Hickman, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1978.
  12. M. Morsy: North Africa 1800-1900; Longman; London; 1984.
  13. See E.E. Evans Pritchard: The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1949.
    J. Wright: Libya, Frederick.A. Praeger, Publishers, New York, 1969.