The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah — 637 AD
The beginning of the End for the House of Sassan
by Phil Halewood and Carl Luxford
This article is the product of work that provided the basis for the choreographed demonstration game on the Society stand at Phalanx ‘97, St. Helens, Merseyside on 27th September, 1997.
When I prepared “Heirs of the Achaemenids” a full translation of al-Tabari was not available to me. Recent acquisition of this has enabled the preparation of this article but also provides both additional and corroborative information to that you may already have read in Heirs...
Many scholars have argued that the traditions related by al-Tabari and the other historians who provide us with the nearest one can get to primary material for the Arab conquest period are untrustworthy for the reason that they are firstly compiled many hundreds of years after the event and are therefore likely to have been embellished and embroidered to suit the taste of the intended readership, and secondly, are virtually impossible to corroborate with external sources of better provenance. While this may be the case - and I may have produced below an interpretation of a pack of lies, damn lies and aural traditions - it is essentially all we have to go on. With this clearly stated read on McDuff...
For ten years the Sassanian State had been dramatically weakened following the victorious campaign of the Roman Emperor Heraclius; whose success had resulted in the downfall of the Shah en shah Khusro II ‘Parviz’ (‘The Victorious’ - in recognition of his successes against the Romans prior to 627). This had led to a series of weak monarchs and a prolonged period of political turmoil as the various court groupings sought to put their candidate on the throne.
Riven by factional strife; most of the eligible heirs to the throne having been put to death, as a result of the various court intrigues, and with much of the flower of its’ armed forces irreplaceably lost in the previous war against the Romans, it was a State ruled by Yezdagird III the young, inexperienced and probably quite arrogant sole surviving heir of the House of Sassan which faced the youthful vigour of the Arabs; a motivated people who had recently been united by a common faith against the non-believers of all other religious persuasions.
Urged on by the youthful monarch the Sassanian commander Rustam had been forced to act against his will in taking the war to the enemy; he was of the sound view that by preserving his better equipped, provisioned and trained army in being this would be the most effective deterrent to any further eastward advances by the Arabs. Having gathered his forces while encamped at Sabat (part of the Ctesiphon metropolis) and threatening to counter any Arab moves Rustam was determined to preserve the army at all costs. To underline the importance which he attached to Rustams’ commission Yezdagird entrusted the imperial standard, the drafs-e Kavian, to the forces mustered under him. While an outward gesture of Royal and determination such an act was previously unheard of and no doubt added to the pressures already placed upon the Sassanian commander.
However despite his best endeavours to avoid direct conflict it was inevitable that Rustams’ hand would eventually be forced. At length this happened, following an embassy from the Arabs to present their terms to the young King of Kings in his capital - either accept the faith, or submit and agree to pay the poll tax in return for Arab protection.
Haughtily rejecting these unacceptable proposals out of hand Yezdagird ordered his commander to sweep the Arabs back into the desert. The Arab historian al-Tabari puts the following words in the mouth of Rustam as he finally but unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the King of Kings to bide his time and adopt a less confrontational approach (2248):
“...let me act [in my own way]. The Arabs still dread the Persians, as long as you do not rouse them against me. It is to be hoped that my good fortune will last and that God will save us the trouble [of having to use force against them]. We shall employ the right ruse and follow the right idea in war, because the right idea and ruse are more beneficial than some victories.”
Even after receipt of the kings direct order Rustam attempted to prolong the period before he would be forced to engage in a pitched battle. Leaving his encampment probably in December 636, the Sassanian general husbanded his forces and moved extremely slowly towards Hira; taking nearly four months to cover the distance of 70 miles! While undertaking this protracted move Rustam had sent various elements of his force along different routes to differeing locations not too far removed from one another. The dispersal was sufficient to keep the Arabs guessing as to what his intentions were but not too great to prevent rapid concentration when action was called for.Once in the vicinity of the Arab force Rustam again adopted a waiting posture. Positioning himself on the east bank of the Euphrates, in the vicinity of al-Qadisiyya he was ready to react to any hostile moves but determined not to move westwards, into what for his forces would be hostile ground on the edge of the desert, to engage the enemy. Past experience during previous years on both sides, at the battles of al-Jisr (The Bridge) and al-Buwaib, had shown that whichever side fought on friendly ground could exploit it successfully against the other.
The Arabs - United under the banner of Islam - ‘submission’ to the will of God - the various tribes and clans of Arabia which had long been manipulated by the two great powers of the region for centuries now found themselves at their strongest when their former overlords were at their lowest ebb. From the heart of Arabia the teachings of Mohammed had spread and during the few years prior to al-Qadisiyyah the highly motivated Arabs had succeeded in gaining the allegiance of the Ghassanid and Lakhmid satellite states of the Romans and Sassanians respectively in what they regarded as a jihad ‘struggle’ justified by their faith.
Deprived of the Lakhmid satellite state, their first line of defence and the military resource which this represented, the Sassanians were forced to mobilise the forces of the various provinces of Iraq and Iran proper to prevent their eastward and northward advances of their new foe.
Following the defeat of the Sassanian army in the last large engagement at al-Buwaib, the Arab commander Muthanna ibn Harithah had died of wounds to which he had succumbed in a previous battle. He had been replaced by Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas who was appointed while in Medina and before venturing to the eastern front.
Battlefield and its Location
The area known as al-Qadisiyya was one of the main entry points to the Sassanian State from the southwest. An important arsenal and centre of supply was situated there making it a natural target for the Arabs who were always anxious to gather booty and acquire supplies whenever they could. The precise location of the battle remains unknown.
John Bagot Glubb, having consulted the Arab sources and used his knowledge of the topography of the area, attempted to described the location as he envisaged it (The Great Arab Conquests. p.195)
“Saad had drawn up his army on the open plain of Qadisiya, perhaps between the modern towns of Nejf and Abu Sukhair. His right rested on marshland which extended to the Euphrates. The desert lay in his rear - the river lay in his front...The Euphrates was then divided into several separate streams in this area, as it still is today. That which divided the two armies is called by the Arab historians the old Euphrates, presumably a subsidiary channel, the main stream having found a new course further east. The flow must have been limited...”
The area is described by the Arab historian al-Tabari (2229):
“Al-Qadisiyyah is situated between the moat-canal [a defensive barrier as well as canal] and al-’Atiq (another canal). In the area to the left of it there is a dark body of water in a deep valley with entangled vegetation. It extends as far as al-Hirah and runs between two roads. One is on high ground, the other is on the bank of a canal called al-Hudud. Whoever follows it is able to see the area between al-Khawarnaq (a fortified town or a fort protected by a moat 1 mile east of al-Najaf) and al-Hirah. To the left of al-Qadisiyyah, as far as al-Walajah, there is a flood plain.”,
“He [Sa’ad]halted at Qadis, a village near al-’Udhayb, and the Muslim troops encamped there. Sa’ad stayed in the castle of al-’Udhayb.”
The Arabs had moved their camp into al-Qadisiyyah opposite one of the al-’Atiq canal bridges located near the village of Qadis.At the start of the third day al-Tabari describes the ground over which the fight took place as a stony tract.
Forces Involved and their Commanders
Figures from 30,000 or 60,000 to as high as 120,000 or 210,000 are quoted by Arab historians when discussing the size of the ‘polytheists’. One account describes them thus (2351):
“Rustam approached with the armies of Persia, sixty thousand men plus the dependants and the slaves. [This was the number counted for us in his register].”.
While the larger of the numbers are obviously wild exaggerations used to help glorify the achievement of the faithful in this great battle they provide a basis for some estimation. As Sassanian field army sizes probably reached a maximum strength of about 20,000 plus allied contingents it would be fair to assume that this, the last great field army of the Sassanians to fight west of the Euphrates, which had been assembled over the previous 4 months of stalemate between the old order and what would soon be the new, was of something approaching 30-35,000 maximum, say 33,000 excluding dependants and logistical support elements (O.K. then camp followers!).The number of followers, supporters and other associated personnel who accompanied the Sassanians was very high, presumably due to the closeness of the enemy to the capital; perhaps equalling the number of combat troops (al-Tabari 2250).
The force included a large contingent of elephants; which had previously been used with great success against the Arabs. The sources related by al-Tabari indicate the total strength of the elephant contingent was 33, including a large scabby looking white animal called by the Arabs the elephant Sabur. He was the oldest present. Of the 33 animals, all equipped with howdahs containing archers, 18 accompanied Rustams’ main force/centre division, and the remainder were with Jalnus. In the battle these 15 were split between the two wings of the army. In spite of the exhausting campaigns and internal strife which had been endured by the Sassanians their army had a reputation which was such that the Arabs would generally prefer to go to fight in Syria and Palestine against the Romans rather than in the east if possible.
RUSTAM - The Sassanian Commander-in-Chief
One of the main power brokers during the period of internal strife which led to the crowning of Yezdagird III his position and place of origin are still debated. Even within the account of al-Baladhuri (255) there is some confusion as to where he originated; Rai or Hamadhan. He was evidently an able politician and military commander, and physically fit (al-Tabari 2286):
“He mounted the horse without touching [his sides] and without putting his feet into the stirrup.”.
It would be very easy to describe him as a cautious commander but that would be to forget the Sassanian military doctrine of the day which countenanced caution, and the achievement of the victory by whatever means - military or otherwise - which were available - avoiding direct confrontation if possible. His actions merely demonstrated how this approach could be followed to the limit. In doing what he did, for the reasons he did, and with the ultimate result of his defeat after being instructed to do battle, I believe that his approach to the situation - and that advocated to Yezdagird - was fully vindicated.Once committed to the engagement he showed a great deal of determination and skill; adopting varying tactics as circumstances dictated.
Arab figures for the Muslim forces are no less consistent more but possibly more reliable - though they may be underestimates for the same reasons indicated above - suggesting that 4,000, 6,000, 7,000, 8,000, 9-10,000, 12,000, 30,000 and 88,000. On the basis of reading the various material available it seems to be apparent that the Arabs cannot have been greatly outnumbered, if at all, and a total figure of 30,000 is quoted by al-Tabari (2222). This would seem, therefore to be a fair estimate of the size of their force.
SA’AD IBN WAQQAS - The Arab Commander-in-Chief
Glubb provides an excellent character sketch of Sa’ad which I have no hesitation in quoting in full (p.189):
“Sa’ad was a cousin of the Prophet and one of the earliest converts to Islam. As a young man, he was a famous archer and was reputed to have been the first man to draw blood in the cause of Islam. Short and thickset, with a large head and shaggy hair, he had the reputation of a veteran fighter. He was forty years old when appointed to be commander-in-chief on the Persian front. As a close relative of the Prophet and a veteran of the Battle of Bedr, no bedouin chief could dispute his right to command. Umar ibn al Khattab [the Khalif], however, is alleged to have warned him against arrogance, or Quaraish [the tribe of the Prophet] were rapidly becoming the haughty aristocracy of the new empire. “God looks for virtue and good works,” he admonished Saad, “and not to birth. In his sight all men are equal.”.”.
Having married the wife of Muthanna ibn Harithah, and inherited his command Sa’ad had a hard act to follow. For the duration of the battle Sa’ad was confined to his bed and the fort of Udhayb by painful boils or ulcers on the backside. Throughout the battle he was only able to communicate with his commanders by messenger and this no doubt affected his ability to react to all but the most major events on the field. It must be said of Sa’ad, however, that the victory attributed to him in this decisive engagement was undoubtedly due at least as much to the to the ability and personal determination of the other Arab commanders on the field as his skill and judgement. In the circumstances he could not keep as tight a rein on his commanders as he might of wished.
During the negotiations prior to the battle, as rehearsed by the various sources, much is made of an occasion on which the Sassanians ridiculed the Arab arrows with which the an emissary was armed. These had substantially thicker arrows, which the Sassanian mockingly called “spindles”, in comparison with their own (al-Tabari 2236 & 2279). During an archery contest between an emissary and one of Rustams’ archers these spindles showed the benefit of their extra weight by piercing a shield; the lighter Sassanian one not penetrating it.
While the Sassanians might be able to fire large numbers of arrows with great rapidity (2356) “as if rain were falling” the accuracy and penetrative power of the shots would be less than that of the Arabs whose shafts would be less likely to be blown off course and possessed far greater momentum. The consequences of this variation in performance was apparently a matter of some concern to the Sassanians following the battle (2357). Al-Baladhuri relates the experiences of Abu’Raja’ al-Farisi’s grandfather (259):
“I took part in the battle of al-Kadisiyah when I was still a Magian [serving with the Sassanians]. When the Arabs sent their arrows against us , we began to shout, ‘duk! duk!’ by which we meant their spindles. These spindles, however, continued to shower upon us until we were overwhelmed. Our archer would send the arrow from his Nawakiyah bow, but it would do not more than attach itself to the garment of an Arab; whereas their arrow would tear the coat of mail and double cuirass that we had on.”.