Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History

Patrick Lynch - May 9, 2017

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.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History

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 was 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.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Tribute of Harun Al Rashid to Charlemagne. Epic World History

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.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Somnath Temple Scene of Mahmuds Plundering. Slideshare

3 – Mahmud of Ghazni (971 – 1030)

Mahmud was the first leader in history to carry the title ‘Sultan’ which means ‘authority,’ and he is probably the greatest leader of the Ghaznavid Empire. Mahmud was born in 971 in modern-day Afghanistan and his father Sabuktigin is credited with founding the empire. He joined his father in the capture of Khorasan in 994 and inherited the crown in 998 when Sabuktigin died. Mahmud captured Ismail in the same year after victory at the Battle of Ghazni.

It was the beginning of a long and successful military career as he created an empire that spanned Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and part of India. He quickly learned the value of using powerful archers on horseback as it became his primary tactic in battle. His archers could kill enemies from a great distance and make it easy for his troops on the ground to overwhelm the enemy. Unlike a number of great military men, Mahmud valued learning and routinely honored wise men.

He is perhaps best known for his invasions of India. From 1000 to 1027, Mahmud invaded India on no fewer than 17 occasions. His invasions were well-timed because they occurred at a time when Rajput power had declined. Mahmud invaded India so often because he wanted to plunder the enormous resources of the vast nation and also to spread Islam. His last invasion in 1027 (some sources say 1024) involved plundering the Somnath Temple. The treasures he stole were equivalent to 20 million Dinars. To put things in perspective, this was over 80 times more than he plundered on his first invasion.

Mahmud is considered a great Islamic hero due to his conquests but was a renowned iconoclast. He regularly desecrated temples and gained the hatred of Hindus for his constant invasion, plunder, destruction, and murder. Despite his bloody conquests, Mahmud did have an appreciation for education and transformed Ghazni into one of the leading cities in Central Asia. He founded universities and built mosques & palaces and patronized scholars. He died in 1030 from tuberculosis after contracting malaria during an invasion. The Ghaznavid Empire lasted until 1187 when it was conquered by the expanding Seljuk Turks.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Saladin. Star 2

4 – Saladin (1137/38 – 1193)

The Egyptian Sultan is one of the most famous Muslim commanders of all time. He is best known for his role in the Third Crusade where he fought the legendary English King Richard the Lionheart. Saladin was born in Tikrit, modern-day Iraq, in 1137 or 1138 in a family with Kurdish ancestry. His military career began under the command of his uncle Shirkuh, and he followed him into various battles. Saladin is credited for helping his army defeat Hugh of Caesarea in a battle near the River Nile.

He became the head of the Muslim military forces in Egypt in 1169, but once the Mesopotamian leader Nur al-Din died in 1174, Saladin spent practically no time in the Nile Valley even though Egypt was his number one source of financial support. For the next 13 years, Saladin spent most of his time fighting fellow Muslims and conquered Mosul, Damascus, and Aleppo among other cities. He established the Ayyubid Dynasty and was prepared to make truces with Crusaders to free up his army to fight Muslims.

However, this state of affairs did not last, and Saladin began the war against the Crusaders that lasted for the rest of his life. Modern historians are not in agreement over his motivation although it seems as if Saladin started a holy war to get rid of Latin military and political control in the Middle East and he was determined to take Jerusalem from the Christians.

By July 1187, he had captured most of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He enjoyed a significant win over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187. At Hattin, the Muslim army killed virtually all of the 20,000 man enemy army although he spared the life of Guy of Lusignan. At this stage, Saladin had control of almost every Crusader city, and while he wanted to take Jerusalem without any further bloodshed, his offer of peace terms in exchange for surrender was rejected by the inhabitants. They declared that they would rather die than hand over the city.

Eventually, the city fell on October 2, but Saladin allowed a number of poor Franks to leave the city without paying the agreed-upon ransom. Tyre was the last major city left to conquer, but it withstood two sieges, and in 1189, the Third Crusade began with Richard I leading the Christian forces. They took the Muslim-held city of Acre and slaughtered its inhabitants. Saladin suffered defeat at Arsuf on September 7, 1191. He tried to take the city of Jaffa but lost a crucial battle in July 1192.

Ultimately, Saladin came to peace terms with Richard as he agreed to recognize Crusader control of the Palestinian coast from Tyre all the way to Jaffa. They also agreed upon a three-year peace. Saladin died of fever on March 4, 1193, in Damascus. He had practically no money to his name because he gave away all of his wealth during his life. Although he was the enemy, Saladin is viewed in a favorable light in Europe because of his generosity and chivalry.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Statue of Timur. Panoramio

5 – Timur (1336 – 1405)

During his military career, Timur, (also known as Tamerlane) exhibited none of the chivalry associated with Saladin. In fact, he is widely known for his extraordinary cruelty which he got a chance to display regularly during his many conquests. Born in modern-day Uzbekistan in 1336, Timur founded the Timurid dynasty and conquered wide tracts of land from India to Russia and the Mediterranean. He only knew war and had no time for surrender or mercy for those he conquered.

Timur was a member of the Barlas tribe, a Mongol subgroup that had been involved in the campaigns of Genghis Khan’s son, Chagatai, in Transoxania, before settling in the region. Timur’s dream was to restore the Mongol Empire of Khan and began his mission in around 1370 after turning against one-time ally Amir Husayn, who was also his brother-in-law. Over the next decade, he fought against the Khans of Jutah and occupied Kashgar in 1380. He helped the Mongol khan of Crimea fight the Russians and his troops took Moscow before defeating Lithuanian troops in a battle near Poltava.

His brutal invasion of Persia began in 1383, and he conquered Khorasan and the whole of Eastern Prussia within two years. His thirst for blood and territory only grew stronger, and between 1386 and 1394, he conquered Armenia, Iran, Mesopotamia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Timur even found time to dethrone the Khan of the Golden Horde, and he occupied Moscow for a year in 1395. While he was away, a huge revolt broke out in Persia which Timur suppressed with his typical level of brutality. He gleefully destroyed cities, massacred entire populations and used their skulls to build towers.

Next, he invaded India in 1398 because he said the Sultans were too nice to the Hindu population. He destroyed the army of the Delhi Sultan in December and razed the city. After briefly returning home and presumably growing bored, Timur invaded Syria in 1399 and took Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad by 1401. After invading Anatolia and winning at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, he returned to Samarkand when the Sultan of Egypt and co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire both offered submission.

Far from being finished, Timur set his sights on an invasion of China which began in December 1404. Fortunately for his latest enemy, he fell ill and died in February 1405. According to historians, his conquests resulted in the death of 17 million people which was the equivalent of 5% of the world’s population at that time.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Mehmed II. Top Keyboard Information

6 – Mehmed II (1432 – 1481)

Mehmed the Conqueror is the man who finally brought the Byzantine Empire to an end. Of course, the Byzantines didn’t really have an ‘empire’ to speak of at that stage but Mehmed II succeeded where other Sultans failed; he finally found a way to capture Constantinople. Mehmed was born in Adrianople in 1432; his father was Murad II, and his mother was probably a slave. His father abdicated the throne at Edirne in 1444 which meant the 12-year-old Mehmed was the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

His youth presented immediate difficulties as Venice, the Byzantines, the Pope, and the Hungarians all sought to take advantage of the fact that the Ottomans had a child on the throne. His father retook the throne in 1446, so Mehmed resumed his studies in Manisa. He became Sultan again in 1451 when his father died, and now that he was older and wiser, he desperately wanted to conquer Constantinople. Mehmed paid Hungarian gun maker Urban a fortune to create the largest cannon ever seen.

A number of disputes with his grand vizier marred the Siege of Constantinople in 1453, but on May 29, the Ottomans made the breakthrough and seized the city. Mehmed proceeded to execute his grand vizier the following day. He transformed the city into a great capital. By the 1520s, Constantinople was the largest city in Europe. Mehmed continued on his quest for conquest as he wanted to expand the old Eastern European Empire to its historical limits. He secured an important victory at the Battle of Erzincan in 1473 to secure domination over Anatolia and the Balkans.

The capture of Constantinople clearly gave him confidence because, in the next quarter of a century, he launched campaigns into Hungary, Walachia, Rhodes and Moldavia among other places. There is a suggestion that he wanted to invade Italy, but in 1481, he died from gout just 25 kilometers from his empire’s capital. Some historians believe he may have been poisoned.

As well as his many conquests, Mehmed reorganized the Ottoman government and was a freethinking individual. He invited Greek scholars and Italian humanists to his court and collected a vast array of Greek and Latin works in his library. During his reign, astronomy, mathematics, and theology reached their highest level in the Ottoman Empire.

Conquerors and Innovators: 7 of the Greatest Muslim Leaders and Commanders in History
Babur. Wikimedia

7 – Babur (1483 – 1530)

Born as Zahir-ud-Din Muhammed, in Andijan in 1483, Babur (Tiger) became the first Mughal emperor after overcoming a series of initial setbacks. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Timur and came from the Barlas tribe. However, some members of the tribe identified themselves with the Turks, so although Babur was a Mughal, much of his support came from the Turks. Since there was no fixed law of succession, every Timurid prince believed he had the right to rule all of Timur’s former territories. Babur’s father spent most of his military career trying to recover Timur’s old capital of Samarkand.

Babur ascended the throne of Fergana after his father’s death in 1495, and the 12-year old ruler faced internal rebellion as his relatives wanted to rule. Babur succeeded in conquering Samarkand in 1497 but lost it just two years later after losing Fergana. He suffered defeat in 1501 as he failed to retake the city and another loss as he tried to regain Fergana. Overall, Babur conquered and lost Samarkand three times; his last failure in 1512 forced him to look elsewhere in his quest for expansion.

He made his first raid on India in 1519, and he captured the strategic site of Kandahar (modern-day Afghanistan) three years later. After four failed attempts to invade Punjab, he succeeded in his fifth attempt in 1525. Babur won a stunning victory over the enemy army led by Sultan Ibrahim Lodi of Delhi. Babur’s army numbered no more than 12,000 while his opponent had around 100,000 soldiers. He used innovative tactics to split up his enemy’s army, and his artillery caused panic. Ibrahim was killed in the conflict, and within three days, Babur was in Delhi and arrived at Agra a little over a week later.

His success appeared to have put him and his men in mortal danger. They were 1,300 kilometers from their base in Kabul with three powerful enemies on different sides. His first task was to convince his army, not to mutiny and return home. Then he dealt with the threat of Rana Sanga who led a powerful confederacy that threatened the Muslim population in India. Again, he was heavily outnumbered as the enemy had 100,000 men and 500 elephants. However, he used brilliant tactics to outmaneuver the enemy and routed them. The ruling warrior caste (the Rajputs) never came together under a single leader again.

After this victory, Babur marched east and captured the fortress of Chanderi before driving the Afghan leader into Bengal. Finally, he defeated his third foe, Mahmud Lodi, at the Battle of the Ghaghara in 1529. Babur overcame incredible odds on a number of occasions and is one of the most skilled, lesser-known commanders in history. In 1530, his son, Humayun became seriously ill. Babur is said to have offered his life to the gods in exchange for his son and walked around the bed seven times as part of the vow. Humayun recovered, but Babur fell ill and died. The Mughal Empire spanned 3.2 million square kilometers at its peak in the 17th century and lasted until 1857.


Sources For Further Reading:

Arab America – Tāriq ibn Ziyād: The Founding Father of Andalusia

World History – Abbasid Dynasty

Boise State University – What Can the Islamic Golden Age Teach Us about Migration and Diversity?

New World Encyclopedia – Ghaznavid Empire

ThoughtCo – Biography of Mahmud of Ghazni, First Sultan in History

Share Your Essay – Mahmud Ghazni’s Invasions of India

Kreately – Why Historians Believe Raja Bhoj Killed Mahmud Gazni, With Facts And Evidence

OZY – Meet Tamerlane, The Other Genghis Khan

Haaretz – Behind the Pyramids of Skulls

Daily Sabah – Mehmed The Conqueror: An Intellectual Genius Among Ottoman Sultans

The Washington Post – Mehmed II Constantinople Conquest

ThoughtCo – Biography of Babur, Founder of the Mughal Empire

History Collection – Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart