Islam

How Did the Umayyad Caliphate Defeat the Persian Sassanid Empire?

Executive Summary

    • The Umayyed Caliphate was far less sophisticated than the Persian empire when they attacked the Persian Sassanids.
    • How did the Umayyed’s win?

Introduction

It is interesting to consider how a far more primitive culture like the Umayyed Caliphate was able to defeat the Persian Sassanid Empire.

See our references for this article and related articles at this link.

How Quickly Muslims Turned Their Attention to Persia

The following table provides the context of how quickly the Muslims turned their attention to Persia after the Muslims conquered Arabia.

Major Islamic Historical Dates

YearDiscovery or Caliphate Event
610Mohammed is proclaimed as prophet
623For first 13 years, Mohammed only accumulates roughly 100 followers.
628Defeats Jewish fortress of Kaybar
629Mohammed and his army conquers Mecca
632Beginning of Rashidun Caliphate
638Muslims Conquer Roman/Byzantine Syria
661End of Rashidun Caliphate
651Sassanid Persian empire is conquered in its entirety after 18 years of war.
661Beginning of Umayyad Caliphate
698Muslims conquer North Africa
750End of Umayyad Caliphate, which followed extreme Arab supremacy overall all other Muslims.
750Beginning of Abbasid Caliphate led to more power being shared with non-Arabs, and less expansionary foreign policy.
820Persian Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi makes major contribution to what is now algebra, astronomy, trigonometry, geography.
825Al-Mamun pushes Greek rationalism, called Mu'tazilism, undermining Islamic scholars.
861Abassid empire splinters into many factions after 861 (Right around the rational schism)
880Excluding expansion into SE Asia 100s of years later, Islam does not expand much geographically from this point.
885Mu'tazilism is soundly defeated by irrational non cause and effect Ash'arism
950Islamic Discoveries Slow After This Point
1099Islamic law stops making progress.
1199Islamic Discoveries Completely Stop
1238Christian Europeans Take Back Cordoba
1250Christian Europeans Take Back Seville
1258End of Abbasid Caliphate
1258Beginning of Ottoman Caliphate
1492Christian Europeans take back Granada and push Muslims and Jews out of Iberia.
1512End of Ottoman Caliphate

How Did it Happen?

This is covered in the following quotation.

A Mismatch Between Persian Infantry and Arab Cavalry and Foot Archers

When hostilities between the Sassanids and the Arabs finally began, the Persian army faced fundamental problems. While their heavy cavalry had proved effective against the Roman forces, it was too slow and regimented to act with full force against the agile and unpredictable lightly armed Arab cavalry and foot archers.

The Persian army had a few initial successes. War elephants temporarily stopped the Arab army, but when Arab veterans returned from the Syrian fronts where they had been fighting against Byzantine armies, they taught the Arab army how to deal with these beasts. – Wikipedia

The Overtaxed Populations and the Jizya

Second, the Persian and Roman populations were very highly taxed; Abu Bakr believed that they might be persuaded to help the Muslims, who agreed to release them from the excessive tributes.

The new non-Muslim subjects were protected by the state and known as dhimmi (protected), and were to pay a special tax, the jizya (tribute), which was calculated at varying individual rates, usually two dirhams for able-bodied men of military age, in return for exemption from military service. Women and children were exempted from the jizya. Mass conversions were neither desired nor allowed, at least in the first few centuries of Arab rule. Umar had liberal policies towards dhimmis, adopted to make the conquered less rebellious and more receptive to Arab colonization.

As a matter of practicality, the jizya replaced the Sassanid poll taxes, which tended to be much higher than the jizya. In addition to the jizya, the old Sassanid land tax (known in Arabic as Kharaj) was also adopted. Umar is said to have occasionally set up commissions to survey tax burdens in order to ensure that they wouldn’t be more than the land could bear. It is reported that Zoroastrians were subjected to humiliation and ridicule when paying the jizya in order to make them feel inferior.

Zoroastrians who were captured as slaves in wars were given their freedom if they converted to Islam. While giving freedom of choice, the Arab conquerors designated privileges for those who converted to Islam. The conversion process was slow and never fully completed, stretching over many centuries, with a majority of Persians still following Zoroastrianism at the turn of the millennium.