The Settlement of Iraq

The Settlement of Iraq

How did these changes affect the newly conquered province of Iraq? When the Arabic-speaking Muslim invaders spread out across the region, they discovered that the social, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity of Iraq made for a number of different mores, customs, and traditions, not all of them immediately comprehensible. Linguistically, most of the inhabitants of Iraq either spoke a dialect of Aramaic (a Semitic language close to Hebrew and Arabic) or a form of Persian (the written form of which was called Pahlavi).

Indians and Africans, who spoke a variety of languages quite possibly unknown in Arabia, congregated in southern Iraqi ports. The main religions in Iraq were Judaism and Christianity (with Nestorian Christians the majority), while a small but still powerful minority of Persian upper-class offi cials espoused Zoroastrianism, the state religion of Sassanian Persia. Finally, Arabic-speaking tribesmen were present in Iraq even before the Islamic conquest, although more of them seemed to have settled in the northern regions than the central or southern ones.

In fact, Arab tribes had been moving back and forth between Arabia and Iraq for millennia; all that the Islamic expansion did was to throw the gates wide open to districts that had been proscribed in the past because they were under the control of a foreign dynasty (the Sassanian). Thus, some of the migrating Arab tribes, far from being foreigners, were at home in Iraq, because the transregional impulse of tribes had already allowed for the relocation and resettlement in Iraq of several clans and subdivisions originally from Arabia.

Central and southern Iraq formed two military fronts in the Islamic campaign against the Sassanian state, while operating independently of each other under different commanders. Those men who joined the Islamic armies on their way to fi ght the Sassanians and Byzantines were not from a single tribe; rather, most of them were volunteers from many different tribal clans and subsections. Both fronts were manned by volunteers from Medina, tribesmen who joined to fi ght alongside the Muslim armies on their way to Iraq, and tribal sections from the large Banu Shayban, Tayy, and Asad tribes.

They were also part of a select few. Noted Islamic scholar Fred Donner estimates that the tribal armies that fought in Iraq numbered no more than 4,000 men (Donner 1981, 221). They were able to join as a formidable military force because they were tightly organized, with tribal chieftains coming under the military command of representatives from the settled Muslim ruling elite from Mecca, Medina, and the oasis of al-Taif, who were supremely loyal to the Islamic state.

Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, the commander in Iraq, moved from his initial settlement of al-Madain (the former Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon) to the new misr, or military camp, of Kufa, where the fi rst temporary houses were built of dried reeds. According to Arab chroniclers of the conquests, Kufa was partly chosen as the “capital” of the new army because it offered good pasture for sheep and camels, the former providing milk and milk products, and the latter, transport. There is evidence that Kufa was a planned community, for alongside the customary mosque were headquarters for military commanders and tribal residences built around a communal courtyard.

Its population was estimated at anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 men. By around 640, Kufa was settled not only by Arab Muslims, but by at least one Persian division that had fought alongside the Arab soldiers, and some sections of the town had Jewish inhabitants, expelled from Arabia (Donner 1981, 236).Like Kufa, Basra, Iraq’s main seaport, was also built as a tribal encampment. Although there is not as much information on Basra, we know that a very large number of tribesmen settled there and that it merited some attention from Iraq’s new rulers.

In the wake of the Islamic conquests, it became apparent that agriculture had been neglected in the region, so the fi rst thing that Arab commanders ordered was the planting of palm trees in Basra and the drainage of marshlands. In fact, land reclamation became an important activity, undertaken by military governors as well as tribal shaykhs. Investment in land, however, was slow due to a variety of factors, one of which related to the uneasiness of Arab troops to commandeer lands that had not completely fallen under an Islamic regime (Donner 1981, 243–244).