Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Military Establishment of the Muslim States

On the whole, then, the military establishment of the Crusader States could field good soldiers, but it always struggled to field enough of them. Given the flaws of Latin armies, part of what allowed the Crusader States to survive for as long as they did was that Muslim armies were equally if not more flawed.

First, with the political fragmentation of the Muslim world during most of crusading history, especially after the breakup of the Great Seljuk Empire around 1090, any large counter-crusading army had to be a composite force, drawn from different areas under different emirs, the regional governors of the Islamic world. In the absence of a unified central authority, coalitions of emirs were highly unstable. Each was jealous of his independence, unwilling to see his rivals or the sultan profit overmuch from a campaign, and constantly concerned about threats to his control of his district in his absence. A strong ruler such as Saladin could overcome these divisions to some extent, but not completely. Part of the problem was that there was no equivalent in the Muslim world to the papal protection given to the lands and families of crusaders during their absence. As a result, the jihad against the infidel was rarely a top priority for regional Muslim rulers.

Second, Muslim armies were also composite forces in terms of the support systems used to raise soldiers. So, too, it could be said, were crusader armies. But the lines separating one sort of Latin soldier from another were not firm: A landholding, settler knight could serve as a mercenary in some circumstances or could join a Military Order; pilgrims and crusaders could become settlers. In other words, all Latin soldiers were products of a single social system, even if from different strata within that system. Furthermore, all the Latin sources of manpower produced soldiers from the same tactical tradition, so that melding them into a unified force on campaign was not overly difficult. Neither condition was true of Muslim armies. The social origins of Muslim armies were not just diverse; two of the three main sources of manpower were essentially outside the mainstream of Muslim society, each in a different way. And the breadth and social diversity of the Muslim world encompassed a number of distinct tactical traditions, not to mention that Muslim military systems evolved over time. Creating a unified fighting force out of such material and keeping it in the field was a frequent challenge for Muslim leaders.

To take manpower first, Muslim armies were drawn from three main sources. At their core were the ‘askar forces, or professional soldiers (including some slaves), of the major political leaders, the sultans and regional emirs. As standing units of full-time, well-trained warriors, ‘askar could conduct small-scale raids on their own. But their numbers were too limited even at the top of the political ladder for independent campaigning aimed at conquest. They could provide infantry or cavalry forces and were supplemented at times by mercenaries (especially infantrymen) from among the poorer and more troublesome elements of the cities.

For greater numbers, leaders called on the holders of iqta’ to bring themselves and a contingent of followers based on the size of the iqta’ to the leader’s army. Iqta’ were granted to individuals in exchange for service of many sorts (including ‘askar forces) and could consist of revenue from a particular area, administrative control of a district, outright land grants, or some combination thereof. The service originally was mostly administrative, but, by the twelfth century, the Seljuks had made military service the major form of this institution. The extent of Muslim lands meant that considerable numbers could be raised this way, but the problem with iqta’ holders was the problem of emirs writ small. As they became attached to the district of their grant, they became more reluctant to leave it for extended campaigning, as personal supervision, especially at harvest time, could increase their income and protect the land from potential rivals. Most of the soldiers produced by this system, therefore, were part- timers who were hard to keep in the field beyond the end of the campaigning season. Large parts of Muslim armies regularly melted away as winter approached, a fact the Byzantines had regularly taken advantage of in their defensive operations.

The third source of manpower for Muslim armies was tribal auxiliaries, drawn from the warlike peoples who lived on the margins of the Islamic world. These included many of the Arab descendants of the founders of this world, but above all the seminomadic Turkmen who moved with their flocks between the summer hills and winter valley pastures throughout the Muslim world, maintaining the lifestyle of their Central Asian ancestors. While fierce fighters, as semi-independent groups they were usually hard to discipline and control. Plunder was their motivation for fighting: They often failed to pursue a beaten foe if booty beckoned, at times even took to plundering the baggage of their allies, and tended to abandon a campaign when plunder became scarce. Thus, they were of little use in sieges and, like iqta' forces, were nearly impossible to hold together past the end of the regular campaigning season.

Tactically, two main traditions competed. The Seljuk Turks were classic Central Asian horse-archers who depended on maneuvers and firepower to wear down their foes before coming to grips at close quarters. Ambushes, envelopments, and feigned retreats were standard elements of the Turkish tactical repertoire. There were infantry (probably in substantial numbers) in Turkish armies, but their tactics and weaponry is virtually ignored by the sources, so their role is difficult to assess. The armor of infantry and cavalry were relatively light. This facilitated mobility, but more heavily armored European soldiers created some problems for Turkish armies. Fatimid Egypt, however, relied on spear-and bow-bearing Ethiopian infantry and on Arab cavalry for whom the lance was the main weapon. Fatimid armies thus relied on infantry firepower and cavalry charges much as Latin armies did, but with lighter weapons, less armor, and smaller horses than the Latins deployed. The superiority of the Turkish tradition is reflected not just in contemporary crusader opinions of their two main foes (they respected the Turks but not the Egyptians), but also in the dominance in thirteenth-century Egypt of the Mamluks, slave soldiers in the Turkish tactical tradition (though with some more heavily armed lancers) who revolted in 1250 and came to rule Egypt themselves.

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