Weapons and equipment in early Muslim armies

Reconstructing the military equipment of early Muslim armies is problematic. Compared with Roman armies—or, indeed, later mediaeval Muslim armies—the range of visual representation is very small, often imprecise and difficult to date. Physically very little material evidence has survived and again, much of it is difficult to date. 1 Literary sources and lexicographical works often mention items of military equipment but rarely describe them unless they are in some way out of the ordinary. 2 High quality military equipment, both body armour and weapons, were greatly esteemed and described and apostrophised in prose and poetry. 3 Taking all these sources together, we can build up a fairly full picture of the sorts of military equipment which were available to soldiers during the first two centuries of Islam. However, it should always be remembered that many men fought without the benefit of full military kit and that body armour, in particular, was probably quite rare.

The standard form of protective body armour was the coat of mail (dir‘, pl. durū ‘). 4 In addition sard or zard are used for mail in general or a coat of mail with the verbal forms sarada and zarada being used for the making of mail. 5 In the classical Roman period, body armour seems to have been mostly lamellar, that is using small plates of metal sewn on to a cloth or leather garment to provide protection. Mail was certainly known in the Roman army from the third century 6 and by the time of the Muslim conquests it was probably the main form of body armour for both Byzantine and Sasanian soldiers. In the Qur’ān, the making of coats of mail is one of the blessings conferred by God on David. 7 The early Islamic sources treat the coat of mail as a standard piece of military equipment. It could be worn under a cloak (qabā’) to disguise it, as Ibn al-Ashtar and his followers did in Kūfa when they were taking over the city in the name of al-Mukhtār in 66/685. 8 In 145/762 the ‘Alid rebel, Ibrāhīm b.‘Abd Allāh was killed when he loosened his mail coat (qabā’ zarad) because of the heat and was caught by a stray arrow. 9 There are also references to the practice of wearing two coats of mail (dir’ayn), the under one being shorter or even made of fabric or leather. 10

Mail required a considerable investment and it is likely that only a small proportion of the soldiers in any army could afford it. When Qutayba b. Muslim was appointed governor of Khurāsān in 85/704 it was said that there were only


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Publication Information: Book Title: The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. Contributors: Hugh Kennedy - author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 168.