Precisely 100 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632, his Arab followers, after having fought across thousands of miles and conquered lands from Arabia to Spain, found themselves in Gaul, the territory that would become modern-day France, facing a hitherto little-known people, the Christian Franks.
There, on October 10, 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 a full century been subjugating all the 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 Strait of Gibraltar, landing on European soil. Upon disembarking, the leader of the Muslims, Tariq bin Ziyad, ordered their fleet burned, explaining, “We have not come here to return. Either we conquer and establish ourselves here, or we perish.”
This famous Tariq anecdote — often recalled by modern 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 his name.
Once the Muslims were on European soil, the depredations continued unabated. Writes one Arab chronicler regarding the Muslims’ 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 in far-off England, a contemporary, the anchorite known as the Venerable Bede, wrote, “A plague of Saracens wrought wretched devastation and slaughter upon Gaul.”
Strange anecdotes found their way into the chroniclers’ accounts. 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 1,300 years later, in the year 2013, a Muslim jihadi ate the organs of his slain enemy to surrounding cries of “Allahu Akbar!”)
At any rate, this must have been the picture the men of the north had of the invaders from the south: wild and insatiable madmen, possibly cannibals, mounted on swift steeds, not unlike, in this respect, the Huns of old, who, under the “Antichrist” 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 what is now 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 [the Siege of Byzantium, 717-718]: they have now conquered Spain, and invade our country on the side of the West.”
Conversely, the Muslims, flush 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 engage in battle. At the head of some 80,000 Muslims, primarily mounted Moors, Rahman was greatly motivated in his destructive northward march into the heart of France 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 intentions, had begun rallying his liegemen to his standard. 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 chroniclers give amazing numbers concerning the Muslims; some said as many as 300,000. Suffice it to say, the Franks were greatly outnumbered; 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 elite Arab overlords were at least chain-mailed. For arms, they relied on the sword and the lance; arrows were little used.