Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Islamic Arms and Armor

Since its emergence in seventh-century Arabia, the religion of Islam spread rapidly, by swift military conquest and by conversion, throughout the Middle East and North Africa. During the eighth century, large parts of India were Islamized, while Muslim armies also began the occupation of Spain, portions of which remained Islamic until the end of the fifteenth century. By the seventeenth century, areas under Islamic religious and political control stretched from the southern Philippines across southern Asia and the Middle East through Turkey and into central Europe. Inevitably, due to Islam’s wide geographic dissemination and long history, Islamic arms and armor reflect a wide range of regional and national styles as well as technical, social, and artistic changes during the various phases of their history.

The expression “Islamic arms and armor” is a term often somewhat restrictively applied to arms and armor of the Mamluk period (1250–1517) in Egypt and Syria, the Ottoman empire (ca. 1299–1922), the Near East, especially Persia, and those areas of India under Mughal rule (1526–1858). One of the main characteristics of Islamic armor is that, compared to its European counterparts, it is often relatively lighter and less extensive. This fact owes as much to a strategic and tactical preference of most Muslim armies for speed over heavy protection, as to the usually hot climate of regions under Islamic rule. An example is the extensive and continued use of mail armor until well into the nineteenth century, while in western Europe this type of defense had been largely relegated to a secondary position with the development of plate armor at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In Islamic armor, the use of plate was usually confined to helmet, short vambraces (arm defenses) and greaves (lower leg defenses), and, to some extent, reinforcement of the mail shirt.

Apart from shirts made entirely of mail, one of the most typically “Islamic” forms of body defense is a shirt composed of steel plates joined by areas of mail, which appears to have been developed first in Iran or Anatolia during the early fifteenth century. Variations with plates of different sizes and configurations were being worn in many parts of the Ottoman empire by the sixteenth century, whence it was probably introduced into India early in the Mughal period due to the Ottoman influence on Mughal military practices.

The most familiar characteristic of Islamic armor is perhaps the distinctive conical-shape helmets, which, with some variation, are found in most European and Near Eastern areas under Islamic rule. One variation is known as a “turban helmet.” Its prototype can be found in the pre-Islamic Sasanian tradition (224–651) of Persia, but its sweeping outline, reminiscent of the domes of mosques, has contributed to this type of helmet being recognized today as decidedly Islamic. Many of the early surviving examples date from the fifteenth century and seem to have been made in Iran and Turkey. Additional protection was afforded by shields, usually of round shape, and constructed—unlike the majority of their European counterparts—of metal.

The weapon most readily associated by today’s audiences with Muslim warriors of bygone times is probably the scimitar or saber, having a long, slightly curved blade with a single cutting edge. Other arms included javelins (throwing spears), battle axes, maces, and recurve bows (so called because the ends of the arms/limbs in their relaxed state curve forward, adding additional momentum to the arrow when the bow is strung). Although the above weapons were certainly also used by foot soldiers, all were essentially suited for use by cavalry.

Firearms had been introduced to the Islamic world by trade and armed conflict in both the East and West, and the manufacture of cannon and handheld firearms became a highly regarded craft in many regions under Islamic rule. What are today commonly referred to as “Islamic firearms” are weapons from various regions, which were derived from seventeenth-century European prototypes in the construction of their locks and in the shape of their butts. Many were fitted either with European locks, acquired by trade or as booty, or with locks that were manufactured in Islamic regions but were in fact copies of European types. Some types, such as the matchlock, remained popular in some areas under Islamic rule until long after they had become obsolete in western Europe.

Many examples of Islamic arms and armor are especially noteworthy for their opulent decoration, a fact for which they were already renowned in the Middle Ages. Sword blades of “Damascus steel” or “watered steel” refer to blades that had been given a wavy or “watered” pattern, produced in the steel prior to forging using specific smelting and crucible techniques. Although this technique was practiced in the Islamic Middle East at least since the Middle Ages, in western Europe such blades were believed to originate from Damascus (Syria), hence the name. Along similar lines, the inlay of metal surfaces such as those of a breastplate or a sword blade with gold or silver was known as “damascening,” a term again alluding to the city of Damascus and the apparent Eastern origins of this technique.

Islamic arms and armor were decorated using a variety of techniques such as damascening, gilding, inlay, gold and silver encrusting, as well as setting with jewels and enameling. On some ceremonial items, the decoration could achieve such sumptuous and spectacular effects that the final appearance of the object has more in common with an item of jewelry than a weapon. Indeed, the splendor of the Mughal empire was such that even today the term “mogul” is synonymous with enormous wealth and power, a notion easily verified by Mughal arms and armor.

Apart from floral and animal motifs, a dominant part of Islamic iconography on arms and armor is confined to calligraphy. Although the representation of (sacred) figures is not strictly forbidden in the Qur’an, images as objects of devotion were avoided in Islamic art from its very beginning. Islamic artists relied instead on the words of the Prophet Muhammad to inspire and to give literal shape to their designs. As a result, calligraphy in Islamic lands developed into a fine art, becoming in the process the principal form of religious ornament. Thus, Islamic arms and armor were often decorated with a wide variety of Qur’anic passages and pious invocations, which functioned as expressions of piety, as powerful defenses in the form of talismans, or simply as visually pleasing ornament.