Source: History Collection
By Patrick Lynch
Since the formation of Islam in the early 7th century AD, there have been countless battles involving commanders who fought to expand the religion around the world. As Islamic armies moved into Europe, the result was centuries of conflict. During this timeframe, there have been many noteworthy leaders, and in this article, I look at 7 of the greatest. Khalid ibn al-Walid is a notable omission; this is deliberate as he is already featured in an earlier piece I wrote on great unknown commanders.
1 – Tariq Bin Ziyad (670? – 720)
Tariq is known as the conqueror of Spain and is recognized as one of the greatest Muslim commanders of all-time. However, there is relatively little information about his origins or nationality. There are three varying accounts of his origins: He was a Persian from Hamadan; he belonged to the Sadif clan; he was a Berber from Algeria. Spanish and Arab historians believe he was a slave of the emir of North Africa, Musa bin Nusayr, although his descendants dispute this claim.
Practically all information relating to Tariq is dated from 711 onwards as this is the year that he launched his invasion of Spain. He landed in Gibraltar in May with up to 10,000 men and apparently told them to ‘burn their boats.’ They obeyed without question even though the enemy numbered 100,000. Tariq requested reinforcements and received an extra 7,000 men. Despite the numerical disadvantage, he won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Guadalete in July where the Spanish King Roderic was killed.
Tariq listened to experienced generals in his army and divided his troops into four divisions as they chased the defeated enemy to Toledo. They soon conquered Cordoba, Granada, Toledo and Guadalajara. When Musa heard about the success, he traveled to Spain with an army of 18,000 men in 712. Together, the two generals conquered approximately two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula as Saragossa, Barcelona, and Portugal were quickly taken. The Muslim army even made its way to France and conquered Lyons. It was the beginning of Muslim rule in Spain until 1492.
Hispania fared well as a conquered state by all accounts. The Muslims apparently didn’t confiscate estates or properties and imposed a system of taxation that was eventually modeled by the West. Serfdom were abolished, and a system of fair wages was introduced. However, to gain freedom, inhabitants had to convert to Islam. Spain ultimately became one of the most prosperous nations in Europe at the time and by the 10th century; the capital Cordoba was one of the continent’s richest cities with a population of over 1 million people.
Tariq and Musa remained in Spain until Caliph Al-Walid I ordered them back to Damascus in 714 where they were honored. However, the Caliph was near death and passed away in 715. His successor, Sulaiman, was less enamored by the two commanders and both men were accused of misappropriation of funds. Little else is known about the rest of Tariq’s life only that he died in obscurity in Damascus in 720.
2 – Harun al-Rashid (763?-809)
Born in Iran in 763 (some sources say 766), Harun Al-Rashid became Abbasid Dynasty’s fifth Caliph and is considered as its greatest leader. By the time he came to power in 786, the Abbasids were at their strongest, and he was one of the world’s most powerful men. At this time, the dynasty’s capital of Baghdad was the largest city on the planet outside of China, and Harun’s incredible court at Baghdad is the subject of many tales including The Thousand and One Nights.
Harun was the third son of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the third caliph of the dynasty and was named the second heir after his older brother when he turned 16. His father died in 785, and his brother al-Hadi became caliph. However, he died the following year in mysterious circumstances and was probably the victim of a conspiracy. Harun became caliph and immediately appointed his advisor, Yahya, as his primary minister (vizier).
Harun’s reign occurred right in the middle of the Islamic Golden Age, and the Abbasid Empire was at its peak. It extended from Morocco to India and the new caliph relied heavily on his vizier to help keep the vast empire together. One of his major military achievements was the successful campaigns against the Byzantines from 797 to 806. He forced Empress Irene to make payments to Baghdad in 797 but her successor, Nicephorus, rejected the treaty. However, he was defeated in 806 and forced to make annual payments to the Abbasids.
Although Arab sources don’t discuss it, there were probably diplomatic contacts between Harun and Charlemagne where the Abbasid leader recognized the European ruler as the protector of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. Harun died in Rus, Prussia, in 809 during a visit to restore order in the region.
While he didn’t expand the empire any further, Harun’s reign is best known for religious, scientific and cultural prosperity with Islamic art and music prospering. Despite Muslims later hailing him as a great leader, critics point out that he left no surviving architecture. There are suggestions that his son al-Ma’mun was the man who established the dynasty as a learning center. He is also accused of great cruelty during his reign, but for his proponents, Harun was the man who pushed Islamic culture forward and is recognized as one of the great Muslim leaders.