This Week in History: The Battle of Tours
Nineteenth-century illustration of Battle of Tours by A. de Neuville
Precisely 100 years after the death of Islam’s prophet Muhammad in 632, his Arab followers, after having conquered thousands of miles of lands from Arabia to Spain, found themselves in Gaul, modern day France, facing a hitherto little known people, the Christian Franks.
There, around October 10-11, in the year 732, one of history’s most decisive battles took place, demarcating the extent of Islam’s western conquests and ensuring the survival of the West.
Prior to this, the Islamic conquerors had for one century been subjugating all peoples and territories standing in their western march—including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In 711, the Muslims made their fateful crossing of the straits of Gibraltar, landing on European soil. Upon disembarkation, the leader of the Muslims, Tariq bin Zayid, ordered the Islamic fleet burned, explaining that “We have not come here to return. Either we conquer and establish ourselves here, or we perish.”
This famous Tariq anecdote—often reminisced by modern day jihadis—highlights the jihadi nature of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750), the superpower of its day. Indeed, as most historians have acknowledged, the Umayyad caliphate was the “Jihadi-State” par excellence. Its very existence was coterminous with its conquests. Its legitimacy as “viceroy” of Allah was based on subjugating lands in the name of Allah.
Once on European ground, the depredations continued unabated. Writes one Arab chronicler regarding the Muslim northern advance past the Pyrenees: “Full of wrath and pride” the Muslims “went through all places like a desolating storm. Prosperity made those warriors insatiable… everything gave way to their scimitars, the robbers of lives.” Even far off English anchorite, the contemporary, the venerable, Bede, wrote, “A plague of Saracens wrought wretched devastation and slaughter upon Gaul.”
Strange anecdotes also find their way in the chroniclers’ accounts during this time. Muslim historian Abd al-Hakem reports that, after landing on an island off Iberia, one of Tariq’s squadrons discovered that the only inhabitants were vinedressers. “They made them prisoners. After that, they took one of the vinedressers, slaughtered him, cut him into pieces, and boiled him, while the rest of the companions looked on.” This incident resulted in a rumor that Muslims feast on human flesh. (Nearly 1300 years later, in the year 2013, a Muslim jihadi ate the organs of his slain enemyto surrounding cries of “Allahu Akbar”.)
At any rate, this must have been the picture the men to the north had of the invaders from the south—wild and insatiable madmen, possibly cannibals, mounted on swift steeds, not unlike, in this manner, the Huns of old, who, under the “anti-Christ” figure of Attila, came ravaging through Europe, only to be defeated, in part by the Franks, in the year 451 at the Battle of Chalons, also in modern day France, 150 miles east of Tours.
“Alas,” exclaimed the Franks, “what a misfortune! What an indignity! We have long heard of the name and conquests of the Arabs; we were apprehensive of their attack from the East [see Siege of Byzantium, 717-718]: they have now conquered Spain, and invade our country on the side of the West.”
Conversely, the Muslims, flushed with a century’s worth of victories, seem to have had an ambivalent view, at best, regarding Frankish mettle. When asked about the Franks, some years before the Battle of Tours, the then emir of Spain, Musa, replied: “They are a folk right numerous, and full of might: brave and impetuous in the attack, but cowardly and craven in the event of defeat. Never has a company from my army been beaten.”
If this view betrayed overconfidence, Musa’s successor, Abd al-Rahman (“Slave to the Merciful”) exhibited even greater haughtiness regarding those whom he was about to give battle. At the head of some 80,000 Muslims, primarily mounted moors, Rahman’s destructive northward march into the heart of France was greatly motivated by rumors of more riches for the taking, particularly at the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours. Rahman initially separated his army into several divisions to better ensure the plunder of Gaul. Writes Isidore, author of the Chronicle of 754: “[Rahman] destroyed palaces, burned churches, and imagined he could pillage the basilica of St. Martin of Tours. It is then that he found himself face to face with the lord of Austrasia, Charles, a mighty warrior from his youth, and trained in all the occasions of arms.”
Indeed, unbeknownst to the Muslims, the battle-hardened Frankish ruler Charles, aware of their purport, had begun rallying his liegemen to his standard in an effort to ward off the Islamic drive. Having risen to power in France in 717—the same year a mammoth Muslim army was laying siege to Byzantium—Charles appreciated the significance of the Islamic threat. Accordingly, he intercepted the invaders somewhere between Poitiers and Tours, the latter being the immediate aim of the Muslims. The chroniclers give amazing numbers concerning the Muslims, as many as 300,000. Suffice to say, the Franks were greatly outnumbered, and most historians are content with the figures of 80,000 Muslims against 30,000 Franks.
The Muslim force consisted mainly of cavalry, and was geared for offensive warfare. The vast majority being of Berber extraction, they wore little armor, though their elitist Arab overlords were at least chain-mailed. For arms, they relied on the sword and lance; arrows were little used.
Conversely, the Franks were primarily an infantry force (except for mounted nobles such as Charles). Relying on deep phalanx-formations and heavy armor—reportedly 70 pounds for each man—the Franks were as immovable as the Muslims were mobile. They also appear to have had a greater variety of weaponry: the shield was ubiquitous, and arms consisted of swords, daggers, javelins, and two kinds of axes, one for wielding and the other for throwing—the francisca. This notorious latter weapon was so symbolic of the Franks that either it was named after them or, quite possibly, they were named after it.
The chroniclers state that the two contending armies faced each other for 6-7 days, neither wanting to make the first move. The Franks made much use of the familiar terrain: they appear to have held the high ground; and the dense European woods served not only to provide better shelter but to impede the anticipated Muslim cavalry charge.
Winter approaching, supplies and foraging areas dwindling, and an Islamic sense of superiority all compelled Rahman to commence battle, which “consisted entirely of wild headlong charges, wasteful of men.”
Writes an anonymous Arab chronicler: “Near the river Owar [Loire], the two great hosts of the two languages and the two creeds [Islam and Christianity] were set in array against each other. The hearts of Abd al-Rahman, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride, and they were the first to begin to fight. The Muslim horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side, until the going down of the sun.”
According to the Chronicle of 754, much of which was composed from eye-witness accounts, “The men of the north stood as motionless as a wall, they were like a belt of ice frozen together, and not to be dissolved, as they slew the Arab with the sword. The Austrasians [Franks], vast of limb, and iron of hand, hewed on bravely in the thick of the fight; it was they who found and cut down the Saracen’s king [Rahman].”
Military historian Victor Davis Hanson writes: “When the sources speak of ‘a wall,’ ‘a mass of ice,’ and ‘immovable lines’ of infantrymen, we should imagine a literal human rampart, nearly invulnerable, with locked shields in front of armored bodies, weapons extended to catch the underbellies of any Islamic horsemen foolish enough to hit the Franks at a gallop.”
As night fell, the Muslims and Christians disengaged and withdrew to their tents. With the coming of dawn, the Franks discovered that the Muslims, perhaps seized with panic that their emir was dead, had fled south during the night—still looting, burning, and plundering all and sundry as they went. Hanson offers a realistic picture of the aftermath: “Poitiers [or Tours] was, as all cavalry battles, a gory mess, strewn with thousands of wounded or dying horses, abandoned plunder, and dead and wounded Arabs. Few of the wounded were taken prisoner—given their previous record of murder and pillage at Poitiers.”
In the coming years, Charles, henceforth known as Martel—the “Hammer,” due to his decisive stroke—would continue waging war on the Muslim remnants north of the Pyrenees till they retreated south. Frankish sovereignty and consolidation were naturally established in Gaul, leading to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire—beginning with Charles’ own grandson, Charlemagne, often described by historians as the “Father of Europe.” As historian Henri Pirenne put it: “Without Islam the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed and Charlemagne, without Mahomet, would be inconceivable.”
Aside from the fact that this battle ushered in an end to the first massive wave of Islamic conquests, there are some indications that it also precipitated the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, which, as mentioned earlier, owed its very existence to jihad, victory, plunder and slavery (ghanima). In 718, the Umayyads, after investing a considerable amount of manpower and resources trying to conquer Byzantium, the eastern doorway to Europe, lost horribly. Less than fifteen years later, their western attempt was, as seen, also rebuffed at Tours. In the context of these two pivotal defeats, a mere 18 years after Tours, the Umayyad caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids, and the age of Islam’s great conquests came to an end (until the rise of the Ottoman empire which, like the Umayyads, was also a jihadi state built on territorial conquests, and which did finally conquer Constantinople).
Thus any number of historians, such as Godefroid Kurth, would go on to say that the Battle of Tours “must ever remain one of the great events in the history of the world, as upon its issue depended whether Christian Civilization should continue or Islam prevail throughout Europe.”
Despite the obvious significance of this battle, cynical modern day historians often point to Edward Gibbon and others as embellishing and aggrandizing this battle. In fact, from the very start, the earliest writers contemporaneous to the battle portrayed it as a war between Islam and Christendom. Gibbon further, and famously, argued that, had the Muslims won, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.” (Writing in the 18th century, clearly Gibbon was unaware that his predictions would still come true, though not by way of active conquest but passive resignation, as the Koran is now taught in Oxford, accorded the same worth of the Bible—equal literature or equal revelation—and Islamic Sharia law is functioning in Britain.)
Still, some modern armchair historians insist that the Battle of Tours was naught but a “minor skirmish” dedicated to plunder, not conquest. As evidence, they point to the fact that, while early Christian chroniclers highlighted this battle, their Muslim counterparts, (except for the very earliest writers, who did acknowledge it as a disastrous defeat) tended to overlook or minimize its significance—as if that is not to be expected from the defeated, especially their posterity.
Other historians insist that plunder was the only objective of the Muslims—a wholly materialistic thesis to be expected from modern-day historians incapable of transcending their own 21st century epistemology. Thus they anachronize, particularly since the texts make clear that conquest and consolidation were always on the mind of the invading Muslims, Rahman’s army no exception: Reinaud tells us that in the emir’s head lurked the possibility of “uniting Italy, Germany, and the empire of the Greeks to the already vast domains of the champions of the Koran.”
In fact, when placed in context, the Muslims’ lust for booty only further validates the expansionist jihad thesis (see Majid Khadurri’s Law of War and Peace in Islam which contains an entire chapter on spoils, ghanima, and their central role in the jihad). From the start, the jihadi was guaranteed one of two rewards for his war-efforts: martyrdom if he dies, plunder if he lives. The one an eternal, the other temporal, reward—a win-win situation that, at least according to early Christian and Muslim chroniclers, played a major role in the success of the Muslim conquests. In other words, that the sources indicate the Muslims were booty-hungry, does not in the least negate the fact that, as with all of the initial Muslim conquests, starting with Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Badr, territorial conquests and the acquisition of booty went hand-in-hand and were the natural culmination of the jihad.
As for general destruction, Michael Bonner author of Jihad in Islamic History, writes, “The raids are a constant element [of the jihad], always considered praiseworthy and even necessary. This is a feature of pre-modern Islamic states that we cannot ignore. In addition to conquest, we have depredation; in addition to political projects and state-building, we have destruction and waste.”
At any rate, the facts speak for themselves: after the Battle of Tours, no other massive Muslim invasion would be attempted north of the Pyrenees—until very recently and through very different means.
But that is another story.
Raymond Ibrahim, a Hoover Institution Media Fellow, 2013, is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam's New War on Christians, which deals with both history and current events.