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Islam and the Sea

Allen Fromherz
Associate Professor
Department of History
Georgia State University

"It is HE (God) who makes the ship sail on the sea so that you may seek of HIS bounty" Qur'an 17:66.

Many have described Islam as a religion of the land, a "religion of the desert" in the words of the influential, nineteenth-century French scholar Ernest Renan (d. 1892). After all, Islam was founded in desert trading cities—Mecca and Medina—by the Prophet Muhammad, the husband of a prominent, caravan merchant, Khadija. Bands of camels and the tough, desert Bedouin emerging over the horizon remain romanticized symbols of Arab and Muslim culture. Umar, the third Muslim Caliph and one of the most influential and respected leaders of early Islam, was skeptical of the sea for what he viewed as its potential to corrupt believers. Even when one goes beyond the "desert" stereotype, the "landed" stereotype of Islam persists. It is an easy assumption to make. Islam has spread through climates as diverse as tropical Africa and the snow-covered mountains of Central Asia, but the assumption remains that Islam was spread only over land, that the Muslim worldview was, in most ways, turned inward. A common argument explaining the "rise of the West" is that the Islamic world was too focused on land routes, land armies and land trade to ever rival Europe's navies and superior shipping technology. This assumption seems supported even by some Islamic sources. Legend tells of the famed conqueror 'Uqba ibn Nafi' (d. 683 AD), who began the conquest of what is now Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and stopped only when he reached the water of the Atlantic. There, he rode out into the tide and proclaimed, "Oh God, if the sea had not prevented me, I would have galloped on forever like Alexander the Great, upholding your faith and fighting the unbelievers!"1

The role of land routes should not be minimized. The rise of Islam transformed the desert. It was the launching ground for Muslim warriors who made their desert encampments often outside of the cities they conquered. Later, the desert was guarded by the Caliphate, the great Muslim Empire that assured travel, pilgrimage, and trade across the vast wasteland with watering stations and a system to control Bedouin raids. It would be none less than a wife of the great 'Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid who took it upon herself to make the road from Baghdad to Mecca bearable. But if Islam had conquered the desert, it might seem the ocean was, as it was for 'Uqba ibn Nafi', an insurmountable wall. While desert trade and technology such as the invention of a superior camel saddle for warriors, was certainly important in the initial, successful spread of Islam across oceans of sand and rock, the sea did not stop the spread of Islam in its tracks like it did 'Uqba's horse. Far from it. In fact, Muslim warriors, preachers, merchants and travelers would come to play a predominant role not only in the Southern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and parts of African Atlantic, but also the vast Indian Ocean. The success of Muslim merchants and the extent of often-peaceful conversion by those touched by Muslim traders and mystical itinerants was such that it could be said that Islamic civilization, especially as it matured as a in later centuries, became a civilization of the sea. But even in its earliest stages, Islam was spread and maintained by seafarers as well as camel-riding warriors. Before the rise of the British Navy and its successor, the United States Navy, Muslims, be they the Corsairs of the North African Coast, or the organized Ottoman Navy, were a naval forced to be reckoned with.

Islam's Navy: The Arab-Byzantine Wars

Even before the rise of Islam, Arabs were known to take to the water, especially in trade along the Arabian and Red Sea coasts. The Qur'an includes passages that refer to voyages across the waves. Also, the first hijra of Muslims away from Mecca included a short sea voyage to the Negus of Ethiopia, who welcomed the first group of exiled Muslims. For centuries there had been traffic between the Christian Ethiopia the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, the fabled land of the Queen of Sheba was said to include Ethiopia or Yemen, if not both realms. Although much trade, especially in frankincense, occurred by land through great desert ports such as Palmyra in Syria, there was also a vibrant sea trade in the tree sap. Fine pearls from the Gulf, collected for millennia from the region that includes Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, were also being shipped, both to India and the West. The Gulf tribes were some of the first who converted to Islam. Presumably, these seafaring peoples would have played an active role in the building and manning of the Navy.

As the storied third Caliph, or successor, to the prophet Muhammad, 'Umar's oft-cited hesitation to engage the enemy at sea should not be dismissed lightly. One could make the argument that 'Umar's sentiment reflected a general sentiment against the sea as a zone of moral corruption and contact. Nevertheless, it is more likely that he also saw naval campaigns as simply too risky — an entire army could be lost at sea, but on land a raiding party could simply retreat to the desert when caught by surprise. Regardless, the Arabs still took to the waves, especially as a reaction to the Byzantine strategy of retreating to fortified beachheads and port cities. The most famous of these ports was Constantinople itself: the best-defended city in the world. While the great Sasanian, Persian Empire to the East quickly fell in a series of land battles and was finished by the 650s, the Byzantines held steadfastly to their naval supremacy. Seeing Muslims as a Christian heresy—a temporary burst of Arab raiding—the Byzantines did not realize the staying power of Islam. Their strategy was to steadily reclaim important and wealthy ports such as Alexandria and eventually run the Arabs dry, pushing them back to the desert. On the Arab side, it was soon realized that any hope of full conquest could only be accomplished by both land and sea.

Mu'awiya, known as Islam's fifth Caliph and founder of the Umayyad dynasty, was at least as famous as a great general in the period before his rise to the Caliphate. It was under his command that the idea of building a Muslim Navy to defeat the Byzantines was embraced. Mu'awiya engaged in raids against Eastern Mediterranean Islands and fortifications including Cyprus in 649 CE. It would be 'Abdullah ibn Sa'ad ibn Abi al Sarh, governor of Egypt, who was personally credited for the first, organized Arab/Egyptian Navy. Like other members of the Meccan elite, 'Abdullah was something of a mercurial, morally ambiguous figure Islamic history. Some sources claim he insulted the Prophet by claiming that Muhammad made up the verses of the Qur'an. Like many self-interested elites, he converted back to Islam only after the Prophet had taken Mecca and it became expedient to become Muslim. It was said by some the Prophet never forgave him for his initial insult and had even wished that he be punished with death. Thus, ironically, one of the heroes of the Arab conquests, a person without whom the Muslims may have never had a chance in the Eastern Mediterranean, was a former apostate. On top of this, he was also known as a hoarder of tax revenue in Egypt, even as the Coptic population suffered famine. Perhaps it was precisely because of his ambiguous background that the first naval victories of Islam, although at least as important as the land battles, are not well remembered. Regardless, it was 'Abdullah who repelled several organized Byzantine attacks, including one on Alexandria in 646 CE. Soon the tables would be turned. It would be the Byzantines on the Naval defensive. As early as 655 AD 'Abdullah defeated the imperial fleet under the personal command of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II at the Battle of the Masts, also called Battle of the Phoenix.

Some military scholars have claimed it was the use of "Greek Fire" that finally saved the Byzantine navy from complete annihilation. An incendiary weapon, a type of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, and sulfur combination, Greek Fire could continue to burn on seawater and wreaked havoc on wooden craft. In 672 CE the Muslim armies and ships were preparing to wrest the Byzantines from their last, great bastion, Constantinople. Greek Fire helped repel two major sieges by Muslim ships. With this victory the war between the Muslim Caliphs and the Byzantine Emperors became a long, drawn-out turf struggle. While still active—they had conquered Sicily and raided the western shore of Italy, even reaching Rome—Muslim navies could no longer claim to control the entire Mediterranean. Having divided politically, they turned to a tactic of piracy and raiding. Muslim beachheads, including the famed "pirate" cove at Garde Freinet in Southern France, were greatly feared. In one instance, the "Saracens" captured the Abbot of Cluny. He was ransomed by a hoard of ecclesiastical silver. Constantinople, that great gateway between East and West, would not fall into Muslim hands until Mehmet II captured the city in 1453. Although political divisions within the Islamic world are usually put forward as a partial explanation, a fully satisfying reason for the relative decline in Muslim naval activity has yet to be put forward. The movement of the Caliphal capital to Baghdad under the 'Abbassids may hold a major clue. The center of Islamic world was moving to the East and the far-richer waters of the Indian Ocean, a sea that would be traversed by two Muslim voyagers of the Medieval period: the legendary Sinbad and the indefatigable traveler from Tangier, Ibn Battuta.

The Medieval Age: Voyages of Ibn Battuta and Sinbad

Sinbad, called Sindbad al Bahri, or "Sinbad the Sailor", in Arabic, is a major character in the famed One Thousand and One Nights, a story cycle that claims origins in the 'Abbasid Caliphate of the powerful Caliph Harun al Rashid. In fact, One Thousand and One Nights is itself an example of the hybrid influence that Indian Ocean trade and contacts had on Arabic literature. Several scholars believe that many of the stories in the famed collection told by the tireless Scheherazade were of Indian origin.

Sinbad was a sailor from the city of Basrah, that port at the confluence on the Tigris and the Euphrates just south of Baghdad. Although largely fantastic, the story does give some rich detail about the risks and sudden rewards waiting for those willing to brave the sea and trade their merchandise on the ships of that age, ships held together with little more pitch and rope. During his many voyages he encountered dragons, fantastic beasts and many threats to his life, only to be saved by the grace of God. The tale opens with a poor porter named Sinbad complaining about the conditions of those without money verses the rich and their easy ways. Sinbad the sailor, now an older gentleman living off the wealth of his voyages, tells the porter of his many trials. On the first voyage he recounts landing on an island that happened to be an ancient whale. After Sinbad lit several camp fires, the whale woke up and descended into the sea, allowing Sindbad's ship to float away without him. On the second voyage, he travels to a land of giant elephants and diamonds, a land that may be somewhat synonymous with Africa. The Eastern Coast of Africa was, indeed, famed for its precious goods. His other voyages similarly reflect the mythical splendor of travel and adventure. As an archetype for thousands very real adventurers and merchants whose journeys were not all recorded, Sinbad symbolized the vibrant nature of Islamic trade and travel.

Almost as famous in the Middle East as Sinbad, Ibn Battuta was one of these true adventurers whose story was recorded when he was, like Sinbad, an old man, back in his home city of Tangier, reporting his tales to a secretary. Less a merchant than a traveling judge whose services were offered to the courts of Muslim rulers throughout Eurasia and Africa, Ibn Battuta traveled more than 70,000 miles in his lifetime. Although he traversed the Mediterranean several times, his adventures in the Indian Ocean, especially the Arabian Sea, fill much of his work. As the scholar Ross Dunn described Ibn Battuta's first venture into the warm waters south of Yemen,

"Looking out upon the Arabian Sea, Ibn Battuta was about to enter a world region where the relationship of Islamic cosmopolitanism to society as a whole was significantly different from what he had hitherto experienced. Up to that point he had traveled [mostly by land] through the Irano-Semitic heartland of Islam, where the cosmopolitan class set itself apart from the rest of society in terms of its standards...The lands bordering the Indian Ocean, by contrast, displayed a greater diversity of language and culture than did the Irano-Semitic core, and the majority of people inhabiting these lands adhered to traditions that were neither Irano-Semitic nor Muslim."2

Ross Dunn makes a crucial point here about the corrupting nature of the sea, the cosmopolitanism and hybridity that comes from constant ocean travel and contact with other cultures. Also, the Indian Ocean was a space where Islam and Muslims of self-proclaimed Arab-Semitic origins—Ibn Battuta was probably Berber as much as Arab—were very much the minority. At times this conferred status to the Arab traveler. After all, Muslim converts in far-off lands welcomed a man who claimed access to the core teaching of the faith. At other times, however, it meant uncertainty, clashes, and misunderstandings. Perhaps the most famous of these was Ibn Battuta's encounter with the nude Muslims of the Maldives Islands, an archipelago in the remote middle of the Indian Ocean. The people of the Maldives spoke Diveli, a language close to Sinhalese; they had only converted to Islam from Buddhism in the twelfth century when a Berber Sufi, from North Africa, Ibn Battuta's homeland, appeared on the island and expelled a jinn, or daemon. The daemon demanded a virgin girl to ravish and then kill each year. The pious Berber volunteered to take the place of the girl in the idol house, reciting the Qur'an through the night. The jinn did not appear and Islam was adopted throughout the Islands and the idols were destroyed. Similar, fantastic stories of conversion to Islam pepper the Indian Ocean littoral. Whether factual or not, they indicate the impact of Islam on local traditions. Nevertheless, not all former customs were abandoned. In the Maldives, for instance, Ibn Battuta, who had been appointed qadi, or chief judge, attempted to end the custom of women wearing a waist-wrapper that covered only their waist and legs. He was unsuccessful in this and was only able to command that all women coming to his court should cover themselves.

In the Mediterranean Muslim shipping and naval power was at its height in the twelfth century under the Almohads. The Almohad navy was under the command of Ahmad al Siqilli, "the Sicilian", an experienced admiral from that island. The fame of Siqilli was such that Saladin requested Almohad help in battles against the Crusaders in the Eastern Mediterranean. As the historian Ibn Khaldun exaggerated, there was a period when not even a wooden Christian "board" was left floating under Muslim naval power in the Mediterranean. The fall of the Almohad Empire in the thirteenth century resulted in the degradation of the North African fleet. Even so, many still held the hope of a revival. According to Ibn Khaldun, "The inhabitants of the Maghrib have it on authority of the books of prediction that the Muslims will...make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea."3 Over time, however, European shipping came to dominate. Ibn Battuta would take a Genoese ship on his journey to Anatolia. The scholar Janet Abu-Lughod considers the Thirteenth Century a tipping point in the Eastern Mediterranean as well: European, especially Italian merchants began to outpace Muslim traders in the Mediterranean, setting prices and commanding the market. European naval expansion would not meet serious resistance until the rise of the Ottomans.

The Ottoman Fleet

As early as the beginning of the Fourteenth Century the Ottoman fleet was already securing important victories, adding small islands to what was a small Ottoman domain. The Ottomans achieved successes against their great rival, Venice, in the first part of the fifteenth century. Perhaps the most important victory for the Ottomans was the conquest of Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, in 1453. After this conquest the Ottomans rapidly expanded their sea-based realm, securing land around the Aegean as well as much of North Africa. Rather than seeing the Ottoman rise as a conflict between Muslim and Christian realms, the Ottomans regularly allied with other European powers, especially France. The Battle of Lepanto in 1571, celebrated throughout Europe as the one major defeat of the Ottomans, was not terribly significant. The next year, the Ottomans would take Cyprus and wrest the Tunisian littoral from Spain. In the 17th century the Ottomans even conquered the Island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, near the English shores. They raided Ireland, Sweden, Scotland and much of the North Atlantic. There were several successful campaigns against the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. Despite setbacks, the Ottomans maintained their victories in the Mediterranean well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It took an alliance of the British, French, and Russians to finally obliterate the Ottoman fleet at the battle of Navarino (1827). Economic decline and stagnation eventually relegated the Ottoman fleet to a position of modest importance in the great "balance of powers" game of the 19th century.


Far from being a religion "of the desert" averse to the sea, Muslim navies either matched or exceeded their Christian and European counterparts from the rise of Islam to the 19th century. Theories of the rise of the West, and the "great divergence" between the West and the rest of the world, cannot include the notion that Muslims were somehow culturally incapable of harnessing the great influence of sea power. Historically, the Islamic world was at least as exposed to oceanic trade and warfare as the naval powers of Northern Europe. Indeed, it was with Ottoman naval help that many northern powers, such as France and the Netherlands, were able to assert themselves. Circumstance, and perhaps even luck, may be as much an explanation as culture in the eventual dominance of the West across the seas.


1 Ibn Idhari, Al Bayan al Maghrib fi Akhbar al-Andalus, First Edition, G.S. Colin and E. Lévi Provençal, 2 vols., Leiden, 1949, 27.

2 Ross Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 116.

3 Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, trans. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton University Press, 213.

Selected Bibliography

  • Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, Philadelphia: Da Capo Books, 2008.
  • V. Christides, "Arab-Byzantine struggle in the sea: naval tactics (AD 7th–11th centuries) theory and practice," in Aspects of Seafaring, ed. Y.Y. al Hijji and V. Christides (Athens, 2002): 87–101.
  • Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250–1350, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Ross Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Allen Fromherz, Ibn Khaldun, Life and Times, Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
  • The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels since Pre-Classical Times, ed. R. Gardiner (London, 1995) .
  • A. M. Fahmy, Muslim Naval Organization in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century AD, 2nd Ed., Cairo, 1966.
  • Sean Foley, "Muslims and Social Change in the Atlantic Basin", in Journal of World History, 20/3, September 2009, 377–398.

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