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The Arab Umayyad Muslim Sieges of Constantinople
Basil Aboul-Enein, USAF and Youssef Aboul-Enein, U, 4/1/2012


The wars between the Arab Umayyad Caliphate and Christian Byzantium occupy such a clear place in history books of the Middle East that it is not unusual for students of medieval history to forgo the importance of interpreting theories on Byzantium’s way of war. Since al-Qaida and Militant Islamists obsess about the Islamic wars of conquest to the exclusion of all other Islamic achievements in the humanities, sciences and philosophy, it is important for western thinkers of warfare to study this history carefully. This is to cut through the mythological narratives put forth by Militant Islamists on the one end, and those who espouse the supremacy of Christian civilization on the other end.

In its strategic location on the Bosporus Strait which links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, a focal point where Europe meets Asia, the history of Constantinople has played an epic role in European-Near Eastern affairs. From its foundation in 324 A.D. by Emperor Constantine I to its final Ottoman capture in 1453, Byzantine trade, culture, status, and religion were hallmarks of this once great city. It was built to become the new Rome, and possessed a remarkable unique position to whoever controlled this city. Constantinople witnessed and withstood siege after siege making every attempt to take command of such an exceptional harbor. The story of Constantinople is a thousand-year old resistance to Arab encroachment, and Balkan raiders. Though the fall of Constantinople was viewed as a significant blow to Christendom, Byzantine ingenuity and discipline served to enlighten aspects of the Western way of war that destroyed the succession of larger Arab armies. Consequently, it is not practical to recognize and appreciate the details behind the siege of Constantinople without accounting for the Umayyad Caliphate Sieges of 674-678 A.D and 717-718 A.D in the scheme of the Western way of war.[1] It is vital to understand that Arabs in pre-Islamic days, as well as after the death of Prophet Muhammad, referring to al-Rum, not as the Romans, but Byzantium and its crown jewel Constantinople. The city, its culture, riches, and technology had an influence on early Arab imagination even before the arrival of Islam.

No sooner had Islam burst out of Arabia than it spearheaded towards Constantinople and with Arab military efforts conducted with such strengths had failed. Almost simultaneously with the unsuccessful attempt to siege and capture Constantinople, the Arabs crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 A.D and by 732 A.D; the Arabs passed the Pyrenees into the south of France and were driven back at the Battle of Tours. These campaigns deserve a careful examination in order to explain Constantinople’s capability to fend off a military siege that reached out from the Levant and Arabia.[2] It is likely that the Ottomans discussed, debated, and laid plans for the taking of Constantinople through analyzing early attempts by the Umayyads to take the city.

With the halt of the Arab army in Asia Minor and the Pyrenees, the west brought the Arabs to a standstill and, thus, brought initiatives that were felt throughout the Near East, from Morocco to Iraq and Syria to Yemen. This essay is an attempt to shed light on why the Arab sieges of 674 and 718 A.D failed and what premises of the little studied Byzantine way of war were applied.

The Dawn of an Empire

In the early seventh-century, Islam appeared on the margins of Arabia unified yet sandwiched between two superpowers the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires. Early Islamic societies were built on the basis of an already determined and established ancient Near Eastern civilization. Islamic society inherited and applied institutions that inevitably shaped and determined its course of history all the way to the modern age. These institutions included trade, ethnic ties, lineage, market economies, a religious clergy, the caliphate, and a form of bureaucracy. Though born out of Mecca, the civilization itself had its progenitors in Palestine, Babylon and Persepolis.[3]

Whereas the imperial world (Byzantium and Sassanid Persia) was mostly settled agricultural and urban, Arabia was predominantly pastoral. Compared to the imperial world, which was committed to monotheistic religions and highly politically organized, Arabia was largely pagan, with admixtures of monotheism that were politically fragmented. By the sixth-century A.D, only Mecca stood against the trend of socio-political fragmentation, and provided a major focal point for social and economic order. The religious sanctuary, known as the Ka’aba (the cuboid structure considered by Muslims the first house of worship dedicated to one God) attracted pilgrims from all over Arabia and became a center of both gods, ideas, and profit. Here, an illiterate Meccan Muhammad ibn Abdullah was born, raised and brought forth the Quran with a religious conviction that was to grow exponentially and accomplish itself in the corners of the known world. Interpretations of the Quran and Muhammad legacy would usher in the Islamic Golden Age through Arab expansionism.[4] This golden age would preserve the Greek and Roman classics and make them a gift to the European Renaissance, invent Algebra, the Algorithm, and advance human understanding of science and philosophy.

From Mecca to Andalusia: The Islamic Empire

The Arab-Muslim community did not remain confined long to the Arabian Peninsula but within a few decades conquered much of the Middle East. Now with an established unified political polity in Arabia, the inevitable expansion of the Arab conquest was merely a matter of time. From the battle of Badr in 624 A.D to the Siege of Vienna in 1529 A.D, Islam’s soldier had displayed an uncanny level of discipline, strategic prowess, and unity to become one of the most powerful and effective military forces in the known world. Islamic military ingenuity was felt in Persian Mesopotamia and Byzantine Syria, under the command of Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, and Byzantine Egypt, under Amr Ibn Al-‘As.[5] The latter’s mother was a Christian from the Ghassanid Tribe, and although not Christian himself understood the schisms many Christian sects possessed in living under Byzantine rule. The discontent among these Christians was forced Church doctrine, being labeled heretics, and over taxation. Al-‘As would use these divisions to elicit support from disgruntled Christian sects in conquering Egypt.

Having preserved its existence, the Muslim community asserted its authority in the rest of Arabia. As the conquered area expanded, the method by which it ruled changed. The conquerors exercised their authority from armed camps where Muslim soldiers were garrisoned. The political frontiers of the Near East had changed dramatically. Epidemics of disease and long wars had weakened both Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires. The Byzantine hold over Syria had been restored only after the defeat of the Sassanid Empire in 629 A.D. [6]

The Arab soldiers who invaded the two empires were not a tribal horde but an organized force. Some acquired military skill and experience in the service of the empires. The use of camel transport served beneficial in campaigns fought over wide areas. The prospects of territory and wealth enabled them to create a coalition of interests among them, and the fervor of conviction gave some of them a different kind of strength. For one to join the Muslim army, one must declare themselves a Muslim, regardless of ethnic origin or national identity, for only Muslims were allowed to join as regular troops.[7] Early Muslims did benefit from non-Muslim auxiliaries and adopted non-Muslim fighting techniques and technology, such as siege engines and catapults.

During the Islamic conquest of Sassanid Persia, Elite Persian troops that converted to Islam joined the ranks of the Islamic army, serving in later campaigns that took them towards the whole scale invasion of the Persian Empire. At the time of the Muslim conquest of Byzantine Syria, Byzantine soldiers served as regular troops in the conquest of both Asia Minor and Egypt. During the conquest of Egypt, Coptic converts were recruited and consequently eased the conquest of Egypt by Muslims. In North Africa, Berber recruits made up the bulk of the Muslim army. The Arab Muslim army certainly made good use of its infantry and combined this with a simultaneous use of cavalry. With constant charges of the armed infantry, the cavalry horsemen were used to flank or encircle the enemy.[8] Muslim cavalry were use to probe for weakness in tight formations, gauge reactions, and get the enemy flanks to give chase to soften the center.

It was not until 632 A.D under Caliph Omar, that the Muslim army became an organization in any sense. He created two distinct branches, the Arab regular army formed the core of the Muslim war machine and the reserve units (tribal levies) were essentially liable to be called upon whenever deemed necessary, mainly attracted to plunder. The army had an outstanding feature regarding movement that was almost entirely independent of logistical and communication lines, as pre-Islamic caravans subsisted on what they could carry with by camel, and needed only to know where watering holes were located. This gave Muslim armies an added benefit on speed and mobility as well as an edge over the army of Byzantine Empire that lacked such mobility, was tied to urban centers, and was militarily exhausted by its long wars with the Sassanid Persians. Consistent military training and discipline were a hallmark of the Arab Muslim army and included the teaching of proper horse riding and archery. Skills that was essential for every male to possess in pre-Islamic Arabia. The procuring of intelligence (al-Barid) and the conduct of covert espionage was highly prized and encouraged by Caliph Omar. Spy networks reported enemy movements, activities and were carefully studied and reported to the Islamic army commanders and the Caliph.[9] The establishment of the Arab empire finally ended the long drawn conflict between Byzantium and Persia over Near Eastern trade routes and for the first time joined the entire Middle East from Central Asia through the Mediterranean, in a single unified imperial and commercial entity.[10]

Arab attacks on the Mediterranean coastlines of Italy and France were frequent through the ninth and tenth-century. Almost as often as Christian attacks were on the North African coasts during the eleventh and twelfth-century. In regards to the geographical considerations of the Christian-Muslim frontier, Asia Minor was directly adjacent to the Islamic heartland, whereas Spain was next to the heartland of Western Christendom. Consequently, the Arab defeat at Poitiers may be considered more of an understandable failure since Muslims was operating very far from its base and that the Franks led by Charles Martel were drawing strength from the adjacent Christian heartland. Charles Martel was often labeled as the savior of European Christendom though the role of Constantine IV and Leo III in holding back Arab penetration of continental Christian Europe may have been overlooked.[11]

Byzantium: Islam’s Eastern Bulwark

A series of developments in the movement of civilizations marked the period between the advent of Christianity to the arrival of Islam. One major development was the rise and adoption of Christianity and the slow dissolution of previous faiths with the exception of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Classical Greco-Roman paganism had its last gasp during Emperor Julian’s reign (355-363 A.D.), better known as Julian the Apostate. As sporadic as the Christian faith was, it grew and protested against the Roman order until the early fourth-century. With the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity found a host nation in the Roman Empire.[12]

Another major development was the shift of the focal point of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople as the new Rome. With the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395 A.D., the empire was divided into two (the western empire ruled from Rome, and the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople). However, within a short duration, the western empire was submerged in constant barbarian invasions from present day Germany and ceased to exist as a major power. The eastern empire survived and endured for another millennia as Byzantine Empire.[13]

Initial Byzantine reactions to the Arab conquest were profound. According to Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (634 A.D) almost two years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, he believed that the Arab invasion was a divine punishment for Christian sin, and stated:

“worthy of the sight of these things [the sights of Bethlehem] and are prevented from entering Bethlehem by way of the roads. Unwillingly, indeed contrary to our wishes, we are required to stay at home, not bound closely by bodily bonds, but bound by fear of the Saracens, and we are prevented from experiencing such heavenly joy, and are engulfed by a grief suited to our wretchedness which is unworthy of blessings.”[14]

In his point of view, the ‘Saracens’ (an ancient Byzantine term referring to the Arabs) were godless invaders lacking religious impulse, even though Islam and Christianity come from the same Abrahamic tradition of faiths. Between 634 and 640 A.D., Maximus the Confessor expressed feelings of revulsion at the continuing progress of Muslim victories stating:

“what could be more serious than the evils now enveloping the inhabited world? What could be more piteous or fearful to those who are now suffering than to see a barbarous people of the desert overrun a foreign land as though it were their own…”[15]

With Byzantine control over the Levant, skirmishes began with the major expedition into southern Palestine. Under the leadership of Khalid ibn Al-Walid, the Arab tribal clans defeated a Byzantine army at the battle of Ajnadayn in 634 A.D marking the first battle between the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the army of the Islamic Caliphate under Omar, that cleared the way for the Muslims to capture central Syria, taking Damascus two years later. This was also the first battle that the Arabs acted as an army instead of as separate raiding parties. What began as large scale skirmishing in order to consolidate a political confederation in Arabia ended as a full scale war against both the Arabian tribes unified by Muhammad and the Byzantine as well as Persian Empires.[16]

The next Muslim prize was the Byzantine province of Egypt. Egypt’s at the time was considered the granary of Constantinople, and had a geo-strategic proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, naval shipyards, and was the main gateway into North Africa (Ifriqiyya). Arab commander, Amr Ibn Al-‘As began the conquest in 641 A.D. and, within a year, had taken Heliopolis and the whole country with the exception of Alexandria that surrendered in 643 A.D. Arab military ambitions turned towards the rest of North Africa. Libya fell that same year and the rest of North Africa in approximately 75 years. Byzantine, however, retained its prized provinces, Anatolia (Asia Minor) and the Balkans, and engaged Muslims in continuous border skirmishes on land and by sea. The victories over Byzantine provinces of the Levant left the Muslim armies with a contested and unsettling frontier that posed a barrier to their expansion.[17]

Greek Fire and the First Arab Siege (674-678 A.D.)

Between 633 and 642 A.D., Muslim forces overran the eastern provinces of Byzantium. With the Sassanid Persian Empire defeated in 641 A.D., the Byzantine Empire was constantly subjected to Muslim invasions along with Bulgar Encroachment to the Balkans. Between 656 and 661 A.D., civil war broke out within the caliphate that commenced over the legitimate ruling Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, revered by Shiites and respected by Sunnis) that ended with the assassination of Ali and the ascension Muawiyah I as first caliph of the newly established Umayyad Dynasty, named after Muawiyyah.[18]

With the Arab conquests firmly secured in Persia, Muawiyah I dispatched his son, Yazid to initiate a great siege of Constantinople under Emperor Constantine IV (reigned 668-685 A.D). The first Muslim Arab assault began in 670 A.D and would last two years, the naval forces of the Muslims passed through the unguarded channel of the Hellespont, which was maintained as the natural obstacle of the capital. Arab forces disembarked near the palace of Hebdomon, approximately seven miles from Constantinople.[19] Muslims were building a beachhead to bring in troops and supplies.

The besiegers made an insufficient estimate of the strength and resources of Constantinople, the city is well supplied with underground cisterns and wells within the city walls. This firm and effective resistance sidetracked Muslim arms to the more easy attempts on the coasts of Propontis (the ancient Greek name for the Sea of Marmara) while the Muslim navy seized several coastal towns, including the Island of Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara, where they established their magazine of provisions and supplies. The siege was mainly based on initial Muslim naval superiority, since the Arabs were unable to breach the Theodosian Walls, built to be essentially impregnable.[20] Of note, the Theodosian Walls (named after Emperor Theodosius II who reigned from 408 to 450 A.D.) was built to keep the Huns from invading Constinople. These multi-tiered walls would not be breached until the Ottomans introduced cannon to the battlefield in 1453.

Yazid’s (d. 683 A.D.) naval forces decided to blockade the city along the Bosporus waterway. So patient were Yazid’s Muslim forces, that the siege was to drag on for five years or as described five successive summers with the same attack and retreat until the mischance of disease, winter and shipwreck compelled the Muslims to end their fruitless campaign. Among those who perished in the attacks was one of Prophet Muhammad’s last companions, Abu Ayub Al-Ansari, who was considered the standard bearer to the Prophet. The siege marked a turning point not only for the prolonged survival of the Byzantine Empire but also sparked western ingenuity due to being under the constant threat.[21]

Two factors worked in Byzantium’s favor. First, while they were not renowned for their offensive prowess, they had become experts at holding prepared defense lines that made Constantinople a formidable citadel. Second, it was the adopted home of a Syrian refugee from the overrun city of Heliopolis in Egypt, an architect named Kallinikos. For it was not Kallinikos’ skill as an architect that made him such a valued asset but the formulary invention he is credited for. A flammable liquid that the Byzantines themselves called ‘artificial fire’ and the western Crusaders later would call ‘Greek fire.’[22] Although the recipe is lost to history, it likely was some form of naphtha of petroleum or coal tar.

Incendiary weapons of varying sorts had been used in warfare before, but none so fearsome and devastating. It proved so useful for Constantinople, whose main concern was the of Muslim naval armada.[23]

According to Saint Albertus Magnus (d. 1280 A.D.),

“if you will make a flying fire which rises above and burns what it encounters, take one part colophonium, that is Greek resin, two parts of native sulfur, and three parts of saltpeter: Rub all small and then rub it with one of linseed oil or laurel oil till it is taken up and becomes like a paste. Put this in a long bronze tube and kindle it and blow into the tube, when it goes to wherever you turn the tube and destroys and burns up everything it meets.”[24]

The Byzantines took measures to assure that the secrets of their artificial fire remained hidden. A letter from Emperor Constantine VII (d. 959 A.D.) to his son revealed the awe of Greek fire, and their obsession with having a monopoly on the weapon, he wrote:

“[Greek fire] was revealed and taught by God through an angel to the great and holy Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and concerning this…he received great charges from the same angel, as we are assured by the faithful witness of our fathers and grandfathers, that it should be manufactured by Christians only and in the city ruled by them, and nowhere else at all, nor should it be sent or taught to any other nation whatsoever.”[25]

According to the Byzantines, the liquid burned even on water and the only sand, urine or vinegar extinguished it. The story of its divine origins circulated in order to enhance the mystique surrounding the weapon itself. Lest anyone doubt God’s readiness to punish traitors attempting to sell the secret, Constantine VII reminded his heirs,

“he who should dare give of this fire to another nation should neither be called a Christian, nor be held worthy of any rank or office; and if he should be the holder of any such, he should be expelled there from and be anathematized and made an example forever and ever; whether he were an emperor, or patriarch, or any other man whatever, either ruler or subject, who should seek to transgress this commandment. And [Constantine] adjured all who had the zeal and fear of God to be prompt and to make away with him who attempted to do this, as a common enemy and a transgressor of the great commandment, and to dismiss him to a death most hateful and cruel.”[26]

According to tradition, only two families in Byzantium were privileged to the knowledge of Greek fire. Those were the emperor’s and that of Kallinikos’ descendants. Chemists, engineers, and shipwrights required to know only the limited basics to create the liquid, fire ships and the siphons. The chemists were capable of delivering the liquid to the engineers, but had no clue how to heat and pressurize it. The engineers had no idea how to build the naval platform necessary to store and deliver the liquid fire at sea. And commanders had no authority to make or employ the weapon at their own discretion, but could only use what headquarters supplied to them.[27] It was the Byzantine version of a weapon of mass destruction.

The formula was surely based on naphtha, as discussed previously, with resin added as a thickening agent. Quicklime may have been added to make it burn in water, and saltpeter added to produce an explosive effect. Though Greek fire was not the first incendiary weapon invented, it had earned almost legendary status due to its employment against the earliest Muslim armies. The use of it at sea may suggest that its uniqueness consisted in its ability to burn on water and the amazing difficulty of extinguishing it.[28]

Byzantine historian Theophanes (758-818 A.D.) chronicles Yazid’s defeat but curiously did not credit Greek fire with destroying any Muslim ships. Instead, he stated only that the Arabs withdrew after the unsuccessful siege and that the Byzantines had employed their secret weapon that resulted in the Arab fleet being sunk on their return voyage, and as they retreated. He goes on to say,

“and in the spring they set out, and in similar fashion, made war on sea against the Christians. After doing the same for seven years and being put to shame with the help of God and his Mother, having, furthermore, lost a multitude of warriors and had a great many wounded, they turned back with much sorrow. And as this fleet (which was to be sunk by God) put out to sea, it was overtaken by a wintry storm and the squalls of a hurricane in the area of Syllaion. It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.”[29]

The fully walled capital proved invulnerable to the massive siege engines and catapults that the Arabs employed and had no effective response to the mysterious new fire weapon. By 677 A.D., the Byzantine navy utilized this outstanding weapon to decisively defeat Muslim galleons in the Sea of Marmara, thus, completely lifting the siege in 678 A.D. This victory halted the Umayyad expansion towards Europe for almost three decades, although the Arabs were not decisively defeated until the Second Arab siege of Constantinople in 718 A.D. After the first siege was abandoned, what remained of the Muslim fleet was destroyed in a storm in 678 A.D.[30]

The Second Arab Siege (717-718 AD)

Political instability plagued Byzantium after the death of Constantine IV in 685 A.D., and this provided the Arabs considerable opportunities to capture portions of Asia Minor. The leadership of Arab General Maslamah ibn Abd Al-Malik (d. 738 A.D.), son of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (d. 705 A.D. this Umayyad Caliph built the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem), planned another direct assault on Constantinople. In March of 717 A.D., Leo III was crowned Emperor of Byzantium this resulted in the forced the abdication of Theodosius III. During the summer of that same year, the Arabs under the leadership of Maslamah, crossed the Dardanelles strait and besieged Constantinople with approximately 80,000 to 150,000 men along with Admiral Sulayman’s fleet consisting of 2,000 war galleons. The siege began on August 717 A.D., with naval support from Admiral Sulayman.[31]

With the overwhelming land forces of the Muslims, Leo III began the search for potential allies and found them in Prince Tervel of Bulgaria (d. 721 A.D.). The Arabs had fallen victim to Bulgarian reinforcements that arrived to aid Byzantium. Clashes began between the Bulgarians and the Muslims that ended with a Bulgarian victory as they appeared to the rear of the Arab flanks with large portions of their army cut off and besieging the besiegers.[32]

The Muslims attempted to build trenches around their camps that faced Tervel’s army and the Theodosian Walls. The Arabs persisted with the siege even with the onslaught of a severe winter. Disease and starvation was rife among Muslim ranks. Even with fresh reinforcements coming from North Africa, the Muslim assaults on the city were unable to breach the walls of Constantinople. In the summer of 718 A.D., the Muslims engaged Tervel in a decisive battle but suffered a crushing defeat under the Bulgarian leader.[33]

At sea, the Byzantine navy deployed their secret Greek fire, and ignited it on the Muslim enemy at sea. Emperor Leo III utilized Greek fire to rout several Arab fleets and regained control of the Dardanelles and Bosporus strait ultimately lifting the naval blockade of the city. Leo III won his victory over the Arab invasion of Asia Minor with their attack from the rear, his Bulgar allies attacking from the west, and the employment of Greek fire. Unable to continue the siege in the face of the Bulgarian attack, the cold winters, and the lack of provisions, Greek fire, the Muslims were forced to permanently abandon their ambitions on Constantinople in August of 718 A.D. Muslim raids continued for several decades thereafter but the very existence of the Byzantium was never seriously threatened again, at least until fifteenth-century and the arrival of the Ottomans.[34]

The Western Way of War

The Byzantine army and navy as a whole may not have represented the ideal picture of what military historian Victor Davis Hanson defined as the ‘Western way of war’ since the aggressiveness of the Western way of war was not entirely characterized in Byzantine warfare.

1. Unlike their Roman military ancestors, the Byzantine army frequently recruited foreign mercenary troops (Goths, Huns, Franks and Varangians or Vikings). These foreign troops often supplemented the empire's regular army but eventually formed the majority of the Byzantine military. Unlike their predecessor the Romans who relied mostly on the efficiency of their heavy infantry, the Byzantine army’s predominance was the cavalry arm as the Legion system slowly dissipated. The over-reliance on cavalry at the expense of infantry coupled with the urbanization of Byzantium made its army unable to project power. However, the positive tenants of western warfare that apply to the Byzantine army were as follows:

2. Technological innovation coupled with military response: the introduction of the ‘medieval flamethrower’ into warfare and the equally vital ability to respond to it became an established feature of the Byzantines.

In order to counter the ever growing threat from the Arab Muslim East, the Byzantine Empire developed the Theme System in response to the Caliphate. This was established in the aftermath of the Arab Muslim conquests of the Levant. The Theme (district) system was an initiative of stationing military units in a provincial area that formed buffer territories against Arab Muslim encroachments. The concept was brought forth during Heraclius's reign (610-641 A.D) with the notion of freeing peasant soldiers to defend these districts and was actually put in practice under Emperor Constans II (reigned 641 to 668). This bolsters Victor David Hanson’s principle of civic militarism. The principle provided land to citizen farmers in exchange for military service when required and therefore provided the empire with a supply of manpower able to provide troops immediately to the front lines.[35]

Conclusion and Historical Significance

The broad and historical significance of the Arab sieges of Constantinople is of incredible importance. It can be ranked as more significant than even the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D. The Byzantine victory over the Arab Muslim forces was the first major defeat that the Arabs had experienced since the Arab explosion onto the world stage almost four decades earlier.

Constantinople employed Greek fire during Byzantium’s last stand against the Ottoman Empire in 1453 A.D. However, its power had been completely eclipsed with the more destructive cannons that the Ottoman besiegers introduced to the battlefield. Both the Arab Muslim failures to take Constantinople and the Muslim defeats in southern France by the Franks are considered primary factors that led to the weakness of the Umayyad dynasty and of the Arab caliphate. There is no doubt that the formidable use of Greek fire and the ingenuity of Emperor Leo III were important factors, it should, however, be noted that the inadequate naval preparedness of the Arabs Muslims and their failure to secure proper logistics contributed to their failure.

According to former librarian at the Middle East Reading Room at the Library of Congress Raymond Ibrahim, the author of the book The Al Qaeda Reader:

“though many historians have rightly hailed the somewhat contemporary Battle of Tours of 732, where Charles the Hammer repulsed the invading Muslim armies, as one of the most decisive victories for Western civilization, in fact, the Byzantine victory over the Muslims is more important: it had the full backing of the caliphate, and consisted of far greater manpower. Had the Muslims won, and since Byzantium was the bulwark of Europe’s eastern flank, there would have been nothing in their way from turning the whole of Europe into the north-western appendage of Dar al-Islam.”[36]

Since al-Qaida makes use of fragments of Islamic history, it is vital that we understand the details that al-Qaida misses, when they weave their militant Islamist historic narrative. In many ways part of al-Qaida’s art, is their ability to prey upon those with a sense of their own history, and not knowledge of history. Grounding ourselves in early Islamic history allows us to understand if one is seeing an Islamic, Islamist or Violent Islamist narrative, thereby assessing the group or individual’s message.

Capt Basil Aboul-Enein, USAF is stationed at Columbus AFB in Mississippi and recently completed his Masters in Military History with American Military University. His brother Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010). Both brothers share a passion for educating America’s military leaders on Islam, Islamist Political Theory, and Militant Islamist Groups.

Works Cited

Brooks, E.W. “The Campaign of 716-718, from Arabic sources.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies

19 (1899): 19-31.

Gibb, Hamilton A.R. “Arab-Byzantine Relations under the Umayyad Caliphate.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958): 220-233.

Gibbon, Edward & J.B Bury. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Gregory, Timothy. A History of Byzantium. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Haldon, John. The Byzantine Wars. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2001.

Heydt, Bruce. “The Lost Secret of Greek Fire.” Military History 23 (2006): 46-72.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Ibrahim, Raymond. The Al Qaeda reader. New York: Random House Inc., 2007.

Issawi, Charles. “The Christian-Muslim Frontier in the Mediterranean: A History of Two

Peninsulas.” Political Science Quarterly 76 (1961): 544-554.

Kaegi Jr., Walter Emil. “Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest.” Church History 38

(1969): 139-149.

_________. Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1995.

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years. New York:

Scribner, 1995.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Loverance, Rowena. Byzantium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.


1. Hamilton A.R. Gibb, “Arab-Byzantine Relations under the Umayyad Caliphate,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958): 220-233.

2. Charles Issawi, “The Christian-Muslim Frontier in the Mediterranean: A History of Two Peninsulas,” Political Science Quarterly 76 (1961): 545-546.

3. Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6.

4. Lapidus, 11-21.

5. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 5-22.

6. Hourani, 22-23.

7. Hourani, 22-37.

8. Ibid.

9. Lapidus, 37-67.

10. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 years (New York: Scribner, 1995), 51.

11. Issawi, 553-554.

12. Lewis, 33.

13. Ibid, 34.

14. Walter Emil Kaegi, “Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest,” Church History 38 (1969), 140.

15. Kaegi, 142.

16. Lewis, 38-39.

17. Lewis, 39.

18. Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 185.

19. Rowena Loverance, Byzantium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 48.

20. Edward Gibbon & J.B Bury, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 2-3.

21. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D., Abu Ayub was buried near the walls of the City and his tomb is considered one of the holiest sites in Istanbul.

22. Heydt, 48.

23. Ibid, 48-49.

24. Bruce Heydt, “The Lost Secret of Greek Fire,” Military History 23 (2006), 47.

25. Ibid, 48.

26. Heydt, 48-51

27. Ibid, 52

28. Ibid, 49.

29. Heydt, 50.

30. John Haldon, The Byzantine Wars (Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2001), 42.

31. E.W. Brooks, “The Campaign of 716-718, from Arabic sources,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 19 (1899), 19-20.

32. Gregory, 200.

33. Brooks, 21-30.

34. Gregory, 200.

35. Walter Emil Kaegi Jr, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 279-283.

36. Raymond Ibrahim, The Al Qaeda Reader (New York: Random House Inc., 2007), 284.


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