Qādisiyyah in modern Middle Eastern discourse

Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh.
Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. [1]
The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (Ar. Maʿrakat al-Qādisiyyah or معركة القادسية; also spelled Qadisiyya, Qadesiyyah, Kadisiya, Ghadesia, etc.) was a decisive engagement during the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the mid-630s. Since the days in which the Arab warriors engaged and defeated the imperial army of Sāsānian Iran near al-Qādisiyyah, countless generations have preserved and retold the history of that event which took place on the plains between the Arabian Desert and a branch of the Euphrates River, between the arid home of the nomadic Arab tribes united recently by Islam and the lush, rich alluvium of Mesopotamia, where Iranian kings had established themselves not far from Biblical Babylon, and between—as some would later suggest—barbarism and civilisation. Inevitably, the passage of time has encompassed the original narrative, leading to its embellishment and even distortion at the hands of story-tellers (Ar. qāṣṣ, pl. quṣṣāṣ), traditionists (Ar. akhbāriyyūn), historians, and political leaders. Around the historic kernel of the battle, a legend has developed over the centuries, comprising a large body of literature full of topoi. Juxtaposing details such as the size of the forces and mention of the clash in non-Muslim annals suggests that the current perception of al-Qādisiyyah is but a pale shadow of the original event. In this manner, the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah highlights the significant function of history and memory in the modern Middle East. The evocation of this battle by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn (Saddam Hussein) during the Iran-Iraq War and currently by radical Islamists exemplify well the continuing emotive power of this ancient engagement.

Table of contents

1. The Traditional account

Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital.
Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital. [2]
Already in the last years of the life of Muḥammad, raids set out against the Sāsānian and Byzantine Empires. Although these expeditions slowed during the consolidation of the Arabian peninsula under the first Caliph Abū Bakr aṣ-Ṣiddīq (r. 632–634), during the Wars of Apostasy (Ar. riddah), the latter’s successor ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634–644) turned his attention northwards, initiating the Arab conquests. ʿUmar had received reports concerning both the instability of the Sāsānian régime, rocked by a succession crisis, and attempts by the Persian sovereigns to restore order along their south-western border following a series of successful raids by Arab tribes under the leadership of a charismatic local chieftain. Consequently, he sent an organised army to build upon those gains, but it experienced a rare defeat during the Arab-Muslim conquests at the Battle of the Bridge (Ar. al-Jisr), which appeared to have ended the momentum and destroyed the Muslim force. It may have even ended the threat to Iran had the Persians capitalised upon their victory, but further dynastic disputes hampered such efforts. Ultimately, ʿUmar decided to despatch a much larger Arab force towards Iraq under the control of an important member of the Quraysh tribe and a respected Companion Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ, one of the early converts to Islam and a maternal uncle of Muḥammad.

1.1 Buildup to the battle

Map of the strategic position of al-Qādisiyyah.
Map of the strategic position of al-Qādisiyyah. [3]
In the meanwhile, word reached the Sāsānian capital of al-Madāʾin (Ctesiphon-Seleucia) of the approach of this enlarged Arab-Muslim force, which had established camp on the edge of the empire, near the town of al-Qādisiyyah, on the western bank of the Euphrates River, near the city of al-Ḥīrah. The young newly-enthroned monarch Yazdegerd III (r. 632?–651) ordered the powerful nobleman and commander of the Sāsānian army, Rostam b. Farrokh-Hormozd, to gather a massive army and to march forthwith to defeat the upstart Arabs. The Muslim position benefited from protection on all sides: protecting their rear was the system of Sāsānian fortifications known as the wall of the Arabs (MP War ī Tāzīgān) or the ditch of Shāpūr (Ar. khandaq Sābūr); to their left were sand dunes stretching towards a small lake near present-day Najaf; a thinning extension on the Euphrates River (called al-ʿAtīq) flowed in front of the army, terminating in that lake; and the marshlands of southern Iraq covered the right flank.

At this point, the Muslims sent several envoys to meet with Rostam (and, according to some accounts, with Yazdegerd). These emissaries, notably al-Mughīrah b. Shuʿbah ath-Thaqafī, unnerved the Persian leadership with their shabby and unkempt dress, cavalier and disruptive attitude, and their arrogance and certainty in the strength of their cause. Tearing fine carpets with their swords, piercing cushions and pillows with their spears, and jumping audaciously onto Rostam’s throne, they expressed clearly their rejection of Persian culture and their unwillingness to compromise, despite the generous pecuniary offers to buy them off. Having ominous premonitions, Rostam tried to delay the Battle, but succumbed ultimately to the desire to punish them for their behaviour.

Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh.
Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. [4]
The details of the battle itself are littered with accounts of heroics, extolling the deeds of the Muslim warriors who faced a much larger—in some accounts, by a multiple of ten—Persian host. On the first day, the Persian elephants managed to push back the Arabs, although the latter succeeded ultimately in maintaining their ground. Muslim reinforcements from Syria began arriving on the second day. A ploy by one warrior to feign much larger numbers of arriving troops, did much to boost the morale of the Arab-Muslim army. Another hero led some soldiers in an attack on the elephants, which, when combined with a clever trick—whereby the Arab horses were decorated in costume—succeeded in frightening the Persian elephants. The latter fled, stampeding through the Persian lines and breaking their formations. Almost all accounts agree that Saʿd himself could not take part in the battle, as he was suffering from an ailment that prevented him from mounting a horse. Instead, he oversaw the proceedings from atop the nearby fort of Qudays, commanding the force through his deputy Khālid b. ʿUrfuṭah.

1.2 Arab-Muslim victory and aftermath

The third night, known as the Night of Howling (Ar. laylat al-harīr), saw the Muslims gaining the advantage and a fierce windstorm that commenced on the fourth morning aided them by blowing sand in the faces of the Persian soldiers. Rostam, who directed the Persian army from atop his throne, took shelter in the shade of a mule after the wind knocked the canopy off of his throne and into the ʿAtīq. An Arab soldier, sometimes claimed to be Hilāl b. Alqamah (or Hilāl b. ʿUllāfah), made his way through the broken Persian lines and chanced upon Rostam, when he swung his sword and knocked a sack off the mule and onto the general’s back. Seeing the throne and noticing the garments worn by the man attempting to flee by swimming across the ʿAtīq, Hilāl recognised him as the famous Rostam. Having caught and beheaded him, he exclaimed: By the Lord of the Kaʿbah! This news caused the total collapse of the Sāsānian army, elements of which had already commenced retreat. In the mayhem, a group of several thousand soldiers who had chained themselves together drowned in the ʿAtīq, while the Muslims pursued and killed many others; some accepted defeat and Islam.

Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981).
Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981). [5]
From this Battle, the Arab Muslims gained a large source of loot, including the famed jewel-encrusted royal standard (Pers.: drafsh-e Kāveyān, sometimes translated as the flag of Kāveh). The Arab fighters became known as the people of al-Qādisiyyah (Ar. ahl al-Qādisiyyah’) and held highest prestige (and pay) of the later Arab settlers within Iraq and one of its important garrison town, al-Kūfah.

According to most accounts, Saʿd and his army pursued immediately the fleeing Persian army up to the outskirts of al-Madāʾin, despatching a few smaller forces who attempted to halt them along the way. After a brief (or long) siege, the Arabs succeeded in penetrating first the western parts of the capital and then the eastern parts, as the royal family and nobility fled eastwards, the Persians relinquishing contrôl over Iraq for good. Thus, the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah broke the power of the Sāsānians, opened the way for the swift Arab-Muslim conquest of the alluvial ‘black’ land of central Iraq (known as the Sawād), and enabled the easy capture of the Sāsānian capital. The Muslims continued their campaign later, defeating two Sāsānian attempts at halting their advance attacks at Jalūlāʾ and at Nehāvand, destroying and supplanting ultimately the Iranian empire.

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Related links

Image credits

  1. Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. Source: Wikipedia.
  2. Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital. Source: Wikipedia.
  3. Map of the strategic position of al-Qādisiyyah. Source: D Gershon Lewental (DGLnotes).
  4. Depiction of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh. Source: British Library (MS. I.O.Islamic 3265 (1614) f. 602r).
  5. Poster for the Egyptian film al-Qādisiyyah (1981). Source: MusicMan.com.

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