Cavalry in Islamic history

The significance of cavalry in Islamic history

Cavalry (from French cavalerie, cf. cheval 'horse'), were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest (after infantry and chariotry) and the most mobile of the combat arms. From earliest times cavalry had the advantage of improved mobility, making it an instrument which multiplied the fighting value of even the smallest forces, allowing them to outflank and avoid, to surprise and overpower, to retreat and escape according to the requirements of the moment.

A man fighting from horseback also had the advantages of greater height, speed, and inertial mass over an opponent on foot. Another element of horse mounted warfare is the psychological impact a mounted soldier can inflict on an opponent. The mobility and shock value of the cavalry was greatly appreciated and exploited in the Ancient and Middle Ages armed forces, and some consisted mostly of the cavalry troops, particularly in nomadic societies of Asia, notably the Mongol armies. With the introduction of fire-arms and barb wire, cavalry lost slowly its value but was still in use in the 2nd world war, mostly in East-Europe, and is still used even today by Special Forces.

The Rise of Islam

Early organized Arab cavalry under the Rashidun caliphate was a light cavalry armed with lance and sword, its main role was to attack the enemy flanks and rear. Armor was relatively light. The Muslims' light cavalry during the later years of Islamic conquest of Levant became the most powerful section of the army. In its time, the Rashidun army was one of the most effective military forces in the world, only Muslims were allowed to join. The size of the Rashidun army was initially 13,000 troops in 632, but as the Caliphate expanded, the army gradually grew to 100,000 troops by 657. The two most successful generals of the Rashidun army were Khalid ibn al-Walid, who conquered Persian Mesopotamia and conquered Roman Syria, and 'Amr ibn al-'As, who conquered Roman Egypt. Khalid, prior to his conversion to Islam, was responsible for the defeat of the Muslims at the battle of Uhud, where he fell into the back of the Muslims with his cavalry. Later on he was called "The sword of Islam". Khalid is said to have fought around a hundred battles, both major battles and minor skirmishes, during his military career.

When the Rashidun army was on the march, it always halted on Fridays. When on march, the day's march was never allowed to be so long as to tire out the troops. The stages were selected with reference to the availability of water and other provisions. One remarkable feature of the movement of this army was that it was independent of lines of communication. Behind it stretched no line of supply, since it had no logistical base. This army could not be cut off from its supplies, for it had no supply depots. All the food stores were collected at one place and trotted along with the army. It needed no roads for its movement, for it had no wagons and everything was carried on camels. Thus this army could go anywhere and traverse any terrain so long as there was a path over which men and animals could move. This ease of movement gave the Muslims a tremendous edge on the Romans and Persians in mobility and speed. When on march, this army moved like a caravan and gave the impression of an undrilled horde; from the point of view of military security it was virtually invulnerable. The most important basic principles of conduct were summarized by Muhammad's s.a.w. companion, Abu Bakr r.a., in the form of ten rules:

"Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone." Ali r.a. stated that Islam does not permit Muslims to stop the supply of water to their enemy.

The best use of the army's lightly armed fast moving cavalry was revealed at the Battle of Yarmouk (636 A.D.) in which Khalid ibn Walid, knowing the importance and ability of his cavalry, used them to turn the tables at every critical instance of the battle with their ability to engage and disengage and turn back and attack again from the flank or rear. A strong cavalry regiment was formed by Khalid which included the veterans of the campaign of Iraq and Syria. Early Muslim historians have given it the name Mutaharrik tulai'a, or the Mobile guard. This was used as an advance guard and a strong striking force to route the opposing armies with its greater mobility that give it an upper hand when maneuvering against any Byzantine army.

Khalid is one of the two military commanders in recorded history, the other being Hannibal, who have successfully executed the pincer movement against a numerically superior opponent. The pincer movement or double envelopment is a military maneuver in which the flanks of the opponent are attacked simultaneously in a pinching motion after the opponent has advanced towards the center of an army which is responding by moving its outside forces to the enemy's flanks, in order to surround it. At the same time, a second layer of pincers attacks on the more extreme flanks, so as to prevent any attempts to reinforce the target unit. This maneuver was carried out in the Battle of Walaja fought in Mesopotamia (Iraq) in May 633 against the Persian army which is said to have been at least three times the size of the Muslim army.

Cavalry remained the most important tool in the Islamic conquest. The Battle of Talas in 751 CE was a conflict between the Arab Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Tang Dynasty over the control of Central Asia. Chinese infantry were routed by Arab cavalry near the bank of the River Talas. Later Mamluks were trained as cavalry soldiers. Mamluks were to follow the dictates of al-furusiyya, a code of conduct that included values like courage and generosity but also doctrine of cavalry tactics, horsemanship, archery and treatment of wounds.

A Mamluk was originally a soldier of slave origin who had converted to Islam. The "mamluk phenomenon" was of great political importance and was extraordinarily long-lived, lasting from the 9th to the 19th century AD. Over time, mamluks became a powerful military caste in various Muslim societies. Particularly in Egypt, but also in the Levant, Iraq, and India, mamluks held political and military power. In some cases, they attained the rank of sultan, while in others they held regional power as amirs or beys. Most notably, mamluk factions seized the sultanate for themselves in Egypt and Syria in a period known as the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluk Sultanate famously beat back the Mongols and fought the Crusaders. The Mamluke Sultanate survived until 1517, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Sultan Selim I captured of Cairo on January 20, the center of power transferred then to Istanbul. Many of the Mamluke fighters were later recruited by the Ottomans.

The Ottoman army was once among the most advanced fighting forces in the world, being one of the first to use muskets and cannons. The Ottomans began using falcons, which were short but wide cannons, during the Siege of Constantinople (1422). The Ottoman cavalry depended on high speed and mobility rather than heavy armour, using bows and short swords on fast Turkoman and Arabian horses (progenitors of the Thoroughbred racing horse) and often applied tactics similar to those of the Mongol Empire, such as pretending to retreat while surrounding the enemy forces inside a crescent-shaped formation and then making the real attack.

An important part of the Ottoman warfare was also the Six Divisions of Cavalry (Alti Bölük), a mounted élite force. The most important of these divisions was the Sipahis. The Sipahis' status resembled that of the knights of medieval Europe. The Sipahi eventually became the largest of the six divisions of the Ottoman cavalry, and were the mounted counterpart to the Janissaries, who fought on foot.

A force of professional raiders called the Akincis pillaged enemy territory ahead of the regular army. They also served as scouts. In battle their main role was to demoralize the opposing army and put them in a state of confusion and shock. They could be likened to a scythe in a wheat field. They would basically hit the enemy with arrows. When attacked in melee, they would retreat while still shooting backwards. They could easily outrun heavy cavalry because they were lightly armed and their horses were bred for speed as opposed to strength. Akinci forces carried swords also, so that in a field war, they could face the enemy first and fight melee. In some Ottoman campaigns, such as the Battle of Krbava field, Akinci forces were the only units utilized without any need for Ottoman heavy cavalry or infantry. Because of their mobility akinci were also used for reconnaissance and as a vanguard force to terrorize the local population before the advance of the main Ottoman forces.

The Defeat of Islam

As significant cavalry was for the spread of Islam, it was also one of the main causes of its defeat! Following the example of Uhud, whenever the Muslims did not follow the command of the Prophet s.a.w., they suffered a defeat and, with the exception of the battle of Tours, when Charles Martell stopped the invasion of France by the Umayyad Saracenes just with infantry, the defeat most often was carried out with cavalry.

Traditionalist Muslims at the time believed that the Crusades and Mongol invasions were a divine punishment from God against Muslims deviating from the Sunnah. However Saladin rejected the widespread belief of divine punishment and instead blamed Muslims for committing a series of errors in their policies (regarding social stability) and on the battlefield.

History repeats itself! Like any empire before such as the Greek, Roman, Persian and like currently "the West", there was a phase of rise, when the people were diligent and strong, making huge progress in science and weaponry, until they reached a peak and felt into decadence. One has only to read the original tales of 1001 nights and one can imagine the society at the end of the "Golden Age of Islam", when belly dance and the consumption of alcohol became widespread.

As related in Bukhari, the Prophet s.a.w. said: "By Allah, I am not afraid that you will become poor, but I am afraid that worldly wealth will be given to you in abundance as it was given to those (nations) before you, and you will start competing each other for it as the previous nations competed for it, and then it will divert you (from good) as it diverted them."

We have reports from the time the Mongols invaded Iraq and finished Abbasid rule by wiping out Baghdad in a devastating storm:

"They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders." (Abdullah Wassaf as cited by David Morgan)

Many historical accounts detailed the cruelties of the Mongol conquerors.

The Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed. Citizens attempted to flee, but were intercepted by Mongol soldiers who killed with abandon. Martin Sicker writes that close to 90,000 people may have died. Other estimates go much higher. Wassaf claims the loss of life was several hundred thousand. Ian Frazier of The New Yorker says estimates of the death toll have ranged from 200,000 to a million. The Mongols looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces, libraries, and hospitals. Grand buildings that had been the work of generations were burned to the ground. The caliph was captured and forced to watch as his citizens were murdered and his treasury plundered. Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city, due to the stench of decay from the ruined city. Baghdad was a depopulated, ruined city for several centuries and only gradually recovered some of its former glory.

If we consider the death toll compared to the number of attackers, why did they not fight until death but allowed themselves and their families to be slaughtered without major resistance? Was it because of the disease called 'wahn' by the Prophet s.a.w., love for the world and fear of death? Let us see what the crusaders were able to afflict on ten thousands of Muslims. Charles Mills says about the Crusaders and the Crusade of 1099:

"They abandoned themselves to every grossness and libertinism. Neither public treasures nor private possessions were spared. Virgin modesty was no protection, conjugal virtue no safeguard. Among the Crusaders, particularly distinguished for ferocity, were two thousand Normans or French. That they destroyed children at the breast and scattered their quivering limbs in the air, that their crimes were enormous, is the general confession of the Latin writers. The Christians dragged the corpses from the sepulchre and despoiled them of their dress and ornaments. They severed the heads from the trunks, and 15 hundred of them were exposed on pikes to the weeping Turks; and some were sent to the Caliph of Egypt in proof of victory. The dignity of age, the helplessness of youth and the beauty of weaker sex were disregarded by the Latin savages. Houses were no sanctuaries, and the sight of mosque added new virulence to cruelty. The attendants and followers of the camp pillaged the houses of Antioch as soon as the gates had been thrown open; but the soldiers did not for a while suffer their rapacity to check their thirst for blood; when however, every species of habitation, from the market place to the meanest hovels, had been covered into a scene of slaughter, when the narrow streets and the spacious squares were all alike disfigured with human gore, and crowded with mangled carcasses, then the assassins turned robbers, and became as mercenary as they had been merciless . They were soon reduced to their old resources of dog's flesh and human carcasses. They broke open the tombs of the Musalmans; ripped up the bellies of the dead for gold, and then dressed and ate fragments of the flesh. Their cruelty could not be appeased by a bloodless conquest; extermination, not clemency, marked their victory.

Such was the carnage in the mosque of Omar that the mutilated carcasses were hurried by the torrents of blood into the courts; severed arms and hands floated into the current that carried into contact with bodies to which they had not belonged. Ten thousand people were murdered in this sanctuary. It was not only the lacerated and headless trunks which shocked the sight, but the figures of the victors themselves reckoning with the blood of their slaughtered enemies. No place of refuge remained to the vanquished, so indiscriminately did the insatiable fanaticism of the conquerors disregarded alike supplication and resistance. Some were slain, others were thrown from the tops of the churches and of the citadel. It was resolved that no pity should be shown to the Musalmans. The subjected people were, therefore, dragged into the public places, and slain as victims; women with children at breast, girls and boys, all were slaughtered. The squares, the streets and even the uninhabited places of Jerusalem were strewed with dead bodies of men and women and the mangled limbs of children. No heart melted into compassion or expanded into benevolence."

Let this be a lesson for you o Muslims, and prepare your outermost strength against the enemies like commanded by Allah! See how in history the table turned, and all heroism of the early Muslims was acquired by their enemies:

When the Ottoman Turkish armies were busting across Eastern Europe and the main body of the Holy Roman Imperial army completely surrounded and besieged by over 200,000 Turkish warriors, the Polish King Jan Sobieski led the probably bravest cavalry charge in history at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The charge was made by the Winged Hussars, an elite polish cavalry force.

In 1577 a massive charge of this ultra-heavy cavalry unit smashed a German army from Danzig, blitzing into the teeth of a 12,000 man force and crushing them until all that remained was a well-trampled patch of red where the enemy army once used to be. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth losses in the battle totaled about 88 men, and most of those weren't even Hussars. In 1601, a thousand Hussars defeated a Swedish cavalry force four times that size. At the Battle of Kircholm four years later, the Hussars (whose commanders' motto was "Kill First, Calculate Later"), sent 1,000 lancers in a charge against 11,000 Swedish infantrymen and cannons for some reason, and incredibly, despite the ridiculous idea of sending your elite troops on such an impossible mission, the Hussars jammed their lances into anything they could find and not only emerged victorious, but utterly slaughtered their opponents army, hacking the broken infantry units into giblets as they fled the field. At the Battle of Klushino in 1610, the Hussars were outnumbered ten to one, and still somehow came out on top, utterly annihilating an army of 40,000 Swedes and Russians with just 4,000 lancers.

The weaponry and armor was similar to that of the Ottomans themselves. They carried a curved sabre hung from a waist belt and additionally a long straight thrusting sword (palasz or koncerz in Polish) attached to the left side of the horse's saddle. The Polish hussar would use his thrusting sword if obliged to charge after his nearly six meters long lance had been broken; if he was involved in a melee or was fighting in a less ordered formation he would rely on his sabre. Their armor was burnished and well-polished so that it gleamed in the sunlight (most Renaissance-era knights preferred black armor because it was more resistant to rust), they wore brightly-colored heraldry, and they also had giant wings strapped onto their backs. These wings, which were made of ostrich or eagle feathers glued onto wooden frames that arched up and over the back, made an insane whistling noise while the Hussars were charging, completely unsettling, terrifying, and overawing the enemy in the brief moments between when they said, "O God, what's this?" and when they had a kebab skewer jammed into their eye sockets. Some of the Hussars also used to up the "wow factor" by stuffing severed heads down the tips of their weapons and charging into battle with a lance-full of heads. The hussars were very well-trained, capable of changing directions and altering their formations in mid-charge, and then plowing through their enemy, circling around, and hitting them again from the rear.

Their wings fluttering and zipping like creepy, spear-flinging birds of prey, three thousand Winged Hussars plowed into the Turkish force, driving them back, plundering their supply train, and driving the Turks from the field. It would be the furthest West the Ottoman Empire would ever advance. Honorable mention during the Battle of Vienna has to go to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who personally charged out to try and help his men, fought in hand-to-hand combat even after his entire bodyguard was annihilated, and only escaped after saving the Holy Banner that once belonged to Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. from falling into Christian hands. Mustafa was rewarded for his heroism by having his head chopped off and delivered to the Sultan in a velvet bag, but what can you do - there are just no pleasing Sultans sometimes, especially when you've just let three thousand Polish Hussars completely rout a force roughly a hundred times larger than them.

One of the last successful cavalry charges in history was also directed towards the Muslims, in the deciding battle of Beersheba in 1917, which marked the victory of the British along with their allies over the Turkish forces, the conquest of Palestine and finally the end of the Khalifah. It became known as the "The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade ".

The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade lined up in three consecutive squadrons (i.e., three waves) with about 500 yards between squadrons. They were armed with bayonets in hand; their rifles were slung over their shoulders. The Australian 11th Light Horse Regiment and the British 5th Mounted Brigade followed more slowly to the rear, and the British 7th Mounted Brigade, which was attached to the Desert Mounted Corps headquarters, also approached from the south.


The Turkish artillery opened fire with shrapnel from long range but it was ineffective against the widely spaced horsemen. Turkish machine guns that opened fire from the left (which might have inflicted heavy casualties) were quickly silenced by a battery of horse artillery. When the line of horsemen got within range of the Turkish riflemen in the trenches, they started to take casualties but the defenders failed to allow for the speed of their approach so once they were within half a mile of the trenches, the defenders' bullets started passing overhead as they found it difficult to alter the sights on rifles quickly enough when confronted with rapidly moving horsemen. This kept the numbers of casualties low for the charging Light Horsemen.

The light horsemen jumped the front trenches and dismounted behind the line where they turned and engaged the Turks with bayonets. The Turks were in many cases so demoralized that they quickly surrendered. One Australian, who was dazed after having his horse shot from under him, recovered to find his five attackers with their hands up, waiting to be taken prisoner. The later waves of horsemen continued through the town which the Turks were abandoning in a panic.

Shame on the Muslims !


One could argue now that cavalry was of course the fastest and most powerful weapon in ancient times similar to today's air force; naturally it had a huge impact on Islamic history, so what's the point of compiling such an article in the first place?

Well, first of all I hope it is an interesting read. Secondly we should ponder on the following:

Will the Muslims ever build more nuclear bombs and other devices of mass destruction than the non-believers to be able to beat them? Are such devices actually allowed in Islamic warfare, remembering the above mentioned order of Abu Bakr r.a. and Ali r.a.?

If the answers are no, how can Islam become victorious again? Building Star Wars Space Crafts maybe or using AK-47?

I am personally convinced that these "modern times" with all its technical achievements will come to an end soon! A war fought like nowadays, where some guys sitting in Los Angeles, drinking beer and eating fries, are shooting missiles at "insurgents" in Afghanistan by remote control from unmanned drones, with coffee break and going home at 5pm, will not be the way a war is fought at the coming of Isa a.s.! An EMP effect caused by a nuclear war or a sun storm, an economic collapse or all together, will beam us back in time, and cavalry and bravery will be once again the deciding factor in the greatest battle of all time insyaAllah, Malhama al-Kubra! Better start training now or you will have to walk ;-)!

And Allah knows best!

Narrated Uqbah ibn Amir:

I heard the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) say: Allah, Most High, will cause three persons to enter Paradise for one arrow: the maker when he has a good motive in making it, the one who shoots it, and the one who hands it; so shoot and ride, but your shooting is dearer to me than your riding. Everything with which a man amuses himself is vain except three (things): a man's training of his horse, his playing with his wife, and his shooting with his bow and arrow. If anyone abandons archery after becoming an adept through distaste for it, it is a blessing he has abandoned; or he said: for which he has been ungrateful.

Abu Dawud: Book Number: 14, Hadith Number: 2507


Sources: Mostly taken from Wikipedia