The world of Islamic swords can come across as disjointed, overwhelming, generalised and incoherent which can prove to be confusing for someone not well-adjusted to the study. With a lack of firm and concise typology on the development of blades and their forms, the development of Islamic swords through time has been ambiguous, with a lack of linear change. This has the detrimental effect of with no overarching framework. This can be especially apparent for the Medieval period where Islamic swords are rarer and, generally, less accessible in within the public sphere. However, a number of Medieval Sources can contribute to a typology, consisting of treatises on sword types. Examples of treatises are by Muhamad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (1048) and Abu Qasim Abdallah Kashani (1301), however these sources are problematic which prove to hinder their comprehension. Biruni’s work, for example, is an amalgamation of written works, older sources, poetry, oral sources, firsthand accounts and sections from the Qu’ran, which though provides a diverse range of sources, makes the content muddled. An earlier treatise lends itself to a more scientific method of recording bladesmithing in a clear and concise manner. The 9th Century Treatise Swords and their Kind by Ta’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, or Al-Kindi for short (801-873) demonstrates a comprehensive guide to Islamic swords in the Medieval Period.
Al-Kindi was an intellectual, scholar, mathematician, physician and musician, hailed as the “father of Arab Philosophy”; his subsequent patronage and support by Abbasid Caliphs resulted in his reputation as a prominent scholar and Historical figure. His career comes into existence, within the Historical records, as a result of Patronage by Caliph Mu’tasim (833-842), whose keen interest in the weapons and equipment of the Abbasid Empire, coinciding with the aftermath of a fourth civil war, compelled the creation of a standardised, well-equipped and elite cavalry army consisting of Turkic slaves from Central Asia, Islamically institutionalised and trained to match the quality of nomad horse archers, outperforming them with superior organisation. The mixture of Al-Kindi’s ancestry and academic methodology of technical and scientific information made him the perfect candidate to write the treatise. Al-Kindi family hailed from an elite tribe of Kinda who held prominence in the heart of the Empire; Ibn Qays, his ancestor, had been one of the prophet’s companions and his father had been the governor of Kufa under Caliph Mahdi (775-785) and Harun al-Rashid (786-809). Al-Kindi is speculated to have been born at the beginning of the 9th Century but unfortunately little is recorded until he comes to the court of Ma’mum (813-833) and then Mu’tasim (833-842), who hired Al-Kindi to tutor his son Ahmad. With the patronage provided, Al-Kindi would also produce hundreds of scientific, philosophical and religious treatises. Despite his prominent position in the Abbasid court, and the prestige that came with it, his reputation seems to have attracted jealousy and resentment from other academics. The sons of Musa ibn Shakir, out of spite, reviled Al-Kindi before Mutawakkil who had him beaten and his library seized. This was later restored by the Caliph but little more is heard of Al-Kindi afterwards.
Al-Kindi’s prominence and academic style of writing coincided with the Caliphs of the time who heavily patronised and commissioned scholarship, translations of scholarly works into Arabic and independent academic research, especially in the 830’s with the construction of the House of Wisdom. It’s therefore reasonable to assume Al-Kindi had the resources of the Empire at his disposal to carry out whatever academic work interested him; in this case, his interested stretched to swordsmithing. The prominence of Al-Kindi as well patronised scholar also conforms to the role of the Caliphs at the time, who sought to emulate the Sassanid kings of old, be the defenders of Islam and supply practical, theoretic and scientific knowledge to meet the demands of running a large Empire. In short, Al-Kindi’s treatise not only shows an era of advancement and prosperity of Islamic literature but also a snapshot into 9th Century Islamic sword-making, which was stimulated by Al-Kindi’s keenness to understand everyday life in the Abbasid Empire.
The importance of Al-Kindi’s treatise, with the Capital of the Empire in Bagdad facing east towards former Sassanid territories, means attention is focused on Eastern Swords with some mention of Western Swords as well. Nevertheless, Al-Kindi’s treatise would find its way into future Furusiyaa treatises that mention sword typology. The 14th Century Mamluk-Kipchack Treatise Muntatu’l-Guzat (Wish of the Warriors of the Faith) details different swords mentioned by Al-Kindi such as Hindu, European and Sulaymani blades. Like most later Furusiyaa literature, the treatise mentioning Al-Kindi’s work without the mentioning of his name, was a product of the time to meet the demand for military treatises being produced as popular literature. As a result, these later treatises leave out his name, leaving the own author’s name anonymous or attributing the work to fictional authors.
1. Overarching themes
in Al-Kindi’s treatise
The treatise covers several themes that was observed by Al-Kindi himself and were concluded to be factors in creating a high quality blade, with qualities such as sharpness, durability, lightness and beauty. These reoccur within the treatise and reflect on how an excellent sword should behave.
The first theme is the distinction between Ancient and Modern swords, with the mediated category of Neither Ancient nor Modern. From a superficial perspective, it would be easy to assume this is in reference to time, however the terms are associated with the quality of the blade. Ancient is in association with noble qualities which show the most excellent features such as trenchantness, flexibility, perseverance and sharpness. These demonstrate a continuity of noble features that are pre-Islamic. Modern, is an antithesis to this definition; it’s a blade that is devoid of any qualities that excel and its function is basic; the blade may do its job but does not excel in any particular qualities. In short, the definition is that of functional. Neither Ancient nor Modern attribute certain Ancient attributes while at the same time also Modern ones, therefore they have qualities reminiscent of Ancient swords but do not reach the standard to be called so. At the same time, they are beyond the functionality of Modern blades. A summary, in the order mentioned, can be great, basic and better.
The second theme is the perspective in the Islamic world that a short and coarse blade is effective. Though the word short is used, the implication covers both thickness and width which is also correlated with the watering of the blade, which will be mentioned in the next paragraph. From the perspective of shortness, Al-Kindi comments:
As for trenchant swords, with respect to their forms rather than to their natures, they are the ones that are short, if they have good bodies and their surfaces and thickness are equal. (On them there is not a place inside and a place outside), nor a place thicker than its equivalent. Their blades are coarse, except the edge itself, for the edge should be the measure of a hair on each side. These are the most trenchant of swords in adversity. As for what best cuts clothes and flesh, it is what combines in it all these properties, except for the coarseness, for the thinnest blade is what best cuts flesh and clothes, and it is not praiseworthy if the blades are not thin. Moderation of the quenching is an aid to sharpness, for if the quenching is severe, the blade will be severed in adversity; whereas if it is light, the blade will be strong in adversity.
The third theme is the most self-evident throughout Al-Kindi’s work, the reference to “watering” on the blade, and this is accompanied by specific details concerning the shape. Some watering designs are, for example, described as interlocking snakes, while others are described as being knotted. This description of watering varied largely in shape. The term itself references the appearance of the blade based on heat treatment, in what we would refer to today as wootz steel. Put simply, high carbon steel, with minimal impurities in the steel, would be tempered and the temperance would be maintained for a long and consistent period of time, with a cycling of heating up and cooling to refine the metal. To do so was a mark of high skill and in today’s time, wootz steel is reputed to be high quality steel that’s difficult to copy unless one is well-tuned to the smithing and tempering of steel. One significant theme, which is underlined throughout Al-Kindi’s work in relation to watering, is how the quality of the blade was balanced through smithing; it was believed that water was retained in the blade and when the iron was heat treated with the carbon, this would evaporate; the level of water within the blade contributed to its quality. If a blade deteriorated easily, it was perceived that a lack of water within the blade had dried the metal and made the blade brittle.
The fourth theme concerns the heating and tempering of the blade itself, represented through the attribute of colour on the blade. This was another means of determining quality. Various blades were described as producing various colours during heat treating, and in some part during the watering process. The use of colours is a mixture of different factors. Al-Kindi, for example, describes a blade being of a red colour and likely refers to the part of the blade that will be etched and therefore a substance would be used on the blade, which could either be a sort of paste or compound/chemical/substance thrown on the sword during the heat treatment. This would result in the production of a reddish-brown background and though brown is not specifically mentioned by Al-Kindi, it was a common colour due to the nature of etching at the time. Induced patination would also have been an inevitable effect of etching, and different parts of the blade would produce different colours as they reacted, with red and yellow being particularly difficult to achieve.
Please note, the attributing of colours will not be detailed in this article. The reason is because the article’s intention is to provide a view on the blades themselves, not their forging. Please note, this article is not suppose to be the treatise itself, it just enables an outline of different Medieval Islamic swords.
Medieval Islamic Swords
To provide some overview, the list below shows the availability of manufacturing and forging from the places Al-Kindi describes:
- Malaysia – Qala
- Sri-Lanka (Forging and manufacturing)
- India – Banbhore, Mansura (Mining and forging)
- Pakistani mountains – Ghandara, Taxil (Mining)
- Afghanistan (Mining)
- Transoxina – Bukhara (Mining)
- Zabulistan – Qandahar, Ghazna, Bamyan (Forging)
- Khurasan – Herat, Nishapur, Merv (Forging)
- Iraq – Mosul, Baghdad, Kufa, Basra – (Forging)
- Syria – Damascus (Forging, though by this time this would have been rare)
- Yemen (Forging and mining)
- Caucuses (Forging)
- Constantinople (Forging)
- Egypt – Alexandria (Forging)
- European – Frankish, Slav, Rus and Scandanavia (Forging and mining)
Categorisation of the blade types mentioned by Al-Kindi are the following:
Blades made from Iron
1. Mined or directly smelted
- Soft Iron – Byzantine, Kharijite and Indian blades
- Hard Iron
- Composites of soft and hard iron – Frankish/European blades in General, Sulaymani.
2. Un-mined or indirectly produced
- Crucible steel, steel produced by secondary processing.
3. Ancient or high quality blades (in order of quality)
4. Modern blades
- Salmani – small Salmani blades with Yemeni and Qala’i style of watering, broad Salmani, rathuth and blades forged in Salman
- Sri Lankan – Blades forged in: Sri Lanka, Khurasan (Iran), Mansuran (lower Indus Valley), Farsi (Iran). Farsi blades can be decorated or plain.
5. White Swords (described as “eggs”)
- Irawi (Kufan or Zaydi)
- Farsi (Imperial type in South West Iran) either being decorated (inlaid) or plain.
6. Neither Ancient nor Modern blades
- Foreign blades (all forged in Yemen in the Yemeni style) – Salmani, Sri-Lankan and Indian.
- Indigenous blades – Khurasan, Basran, Damascan and Egyptian blades and blades which are unattributed because of the small output.
2.1 Yemeni Swords
The blade’s watering is described as elongated, curved and with knotting of an equal measurement. Within the blade, there are bits of led, similar to worms that follow one another, with the colour like the white of silver which leaves traces in the blade. There are four types of shapes for Yemeni swords:
- Those with blades that are broad at the bottom and taper to the top. The tang is very square but tapers towards the end as well. Like pre-Islamic swords, these types of sword were forged with two incisions incised at the extremities of the tang. These incisions may be broader in one direction, or the two directions may be equal with a narrower middle section. These types tend to have four grooves.
- The carved-out sword, the grooves of which are similar to rivers as they circulate like the shape of the blade. Though not common at this time, this might be in reference to curved blades, the curvature being shallow. According to Al-Kindi, it is of good watering, which refers to the place where the grooves are made, this is done with a chisel, in the fashion of the samsama.
- The sword which grooves possess piercing, meaning the sword has square angles within them which are evenly arranged on the face of the sword.
- The sword with three groves, one in the middle and “two in the two blades”, meaning the blades separated by the groove. These are called Shahadastis, dast which likely relates to the Persian das, meaning sickle or reaping hook, preceded by shah/shadar, pertaining to royalty.
The shapes of the blades for these four types varies. The most they can be, width wise, is 3 full fingers and at the least 2 and a half. They’re described as being light and the weight is no more than two ratls or even two ratls less than a quarter. Those that are less than a quarter ratl are described as misshapen and very crooked, but are left misshapen for fear the weight will be reduced if they are further tempered in the fire. According to Al-Kindi, this is because prices are determined solely by weight.
Swords will also typically have veins (meaning cracks) in the blade and are usually covered up with handwriting, human or animal images where splitting and separation has occurred. If the iron is like ridges then it will pierce well and the white part of the blade (the part without watering) is sharp, unless the blade is very dry, which means it is liable to break (especially during cold weather).
2.2 Indian swords
Indian blades are described as resembling that of the Yemeni, however the watering has more intense knotting, and wrinkling within the knotting.
2.3 Qala’i sword
Qala’i blades tend to have a breath of four to three fingers in total and the length is between four and five spans, except for those that have been reduced and treated. They are evenly shaped, are delicate in their tangs (more so than the Yemeni tangs) and are like white silver. None of the swords have grooves and the watering is smaller than the Yemeni, and is knotted in nature as the blade has the greatest diversity in knots. The blades edges are free of veins.
2.4 Salmani swords
The metal is bought, cast, from the land of Salman and forged in Transoxanian Khurasan. The swords tend to be long and of fine breath with small watering and curliness, resembling the curliness of the Qala baldes; the shape is described as delicate. If the sword is of excellent weight, Al-Kindi comments that clever swordsmiths put the blade into the fire and press it until it’s completely blended. Then it’s forged after the length has been shortened by a span so the breath of the blade is increased. If the swordsmith wants the blade to resemble Yemeni blades, they will make the blade shorter and even forge the top as the Yemeni do; then they will quench half of the blade so that it’s nature is safeguarded/enlarged, which effects the upper half of the sword’s sharp edge (something which is also done to Yemeni tips). All of the blade is quenched apart for one span, or less than one span, of what is text to the tang. If bladesmiths want to forge the blade into the shape of the Qala’i, the blades are worked into long swords with a length of four spans, less than two finger width, which evens tips and pointed heads. The name “Small one” is attributed to the blade if the forging is light and belongs in two categories. The watering is one and half times that of Qala’i blades and a little bigger than the watering of the Yemeni. After coating the blade, the watering looks like a broken shaft, discontinuous in numerous places of the pressing, because it is not different throughout on account of the hammer’s pressure on the two sides.
Among these swords at the broad Salmani swords. Their breath is between three and four fingers long, and their length is four spans. Their weight is between three and three and a half ratl. Another category is the rathuth and are seldom to be found without a square stamp on the tang with the name of the manufacturer on it; this is at a measure of two fingers compressed together from the end of the tang. The best of these swords are those where the writing of the stamp is fixed into a square stamp. According to Al-Kindi, the best swordsmiths he talks to state they had never seen a crack on the blades as long as they lived in Mansura, except for one sword which had a serrated back.
Some of the rathuth are serrated and most of them are filed. Their length is four spans and their breath is between four fingers compressed together and slightly less than four. They have excellent broadsides, beautiful heads and broad tangs like that of the big Qala’i blades. Subsequently, due to the quenching, which makes the blade solid and firm, all of the swordsmiths of Khurasan, Mosul, Yemen, and Jibal would buy it assuming it were Qala’i, except for the Iraqis. The weight of these blades are between four and four and a half ratl but the least of them is three and a half ratl. The one that is forged in Salman itself has a broad watering.
2.5 Sri Lankan swords
These types of blades are manufactured in Sri Lanka and are forged in Sri Lanka, Khurasan and Yemen. The steel forged in Sri Lanka is referenced as “raw” which is defined as not affected by fire; this is because the iron is heated with charcoal of flexible wood, willow, and the like, rather than cane charcoal. If captured by Baghdadis, they would make it’s watering apparent by placing the metal in hot charcoals until nothing but the hardest part is apparent. After, the blade is polished and medicament is thrown on it. If the watering if not good, it’s referred to as “worn away” with a nature not noble (also meaning not wetted) nor broad. The Sri Lankan metal forged in Khurasan is forged with charcoal and oak or euphorbia. It is “pure” nature in that it resembles white swords. The most trenchant of these kinds of swords are linked to the type of raw metal mined in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan metal forged in Mansura is short, fine, delicate and broad. The breath is at most three fingers, some of them resembling Yemeni iron, except the watering is not free from thinness and leanness. The Mansuri are referenced as being the brightest and most noble when it comes to watering, and the shapes of the swords are the same as those of the Yemenis which have no grooves.
Those forged in Fars in the past are referenced as “King of the Hunt,” consisting of images and ornamental borders, these are worked by being gilded in gold. There’s also a Salmani type of sword forged in Fars which is similar as it is called “Imperial.” The Sri Lankan sword of the Farsi ones have the broadest watering because the people of Fars work the white swords for themselves.
2.6 White swords
These consist of two types of swords which were forged in Fars and Kufa in earlier times. They are both short swords, the broadest of which is three fingers in breath, however there may occur notching on the edge. Their length is three spans and four fingers. The blade is described as split (meaning open, but might also possibly meaning double edged). The tangs are slim, the upper parts a little slimmer/thinner. The tangs are pierced twice with two incisions at the extremity. The heads are heavier than their lower parts, which is defined as the part next to the handle. The head towards the rounding are tapered with fine tips, resembling the places that are in the Qala’i. The watering is not knotted at all and is equal. Among the blade whose watering is floral, it is indigenously made however among these the quenching is not clear and tend to have floriated iron.
Kufan white swords are described as being more trenchant than Farsi swords and are also described as being the most trenchant of all swords and the most enduring in adversity. Between the Kufan and Farsi, even the weight and shape are equal but there is a difference in the price of a third between them. The highest price of the large, and beautiful, Kufans is eight dinars and the lowest price is two dinars, though if they are very light in weight they are sold for one dinar.
The mark of the Farsi is that it’s longer than the Kufan by three fingers or more. Farsi swords, if changed for some reason (and both types cannot be distinguished), are recognisable because the tang is longer by two fingers, and is thicker and broader than the edge of the Kufan by a large amount. Farsi swords may be different in fineness and breath, they’re much broader than Kufan swords however the nature of Kufan blades is purer, more luminous and resembles more Ancient qualities. The lower part of the Farsi swords, which lie next to the tang are heavier than the upper parts.
These swords have broader parts and fine heads, very similar to Ancient Yemeni swords, with one broad groove in the middle like a clear river. Their nature resembles the character of the foreign Tabari clothes. On their foreparts are crescent moons filled with yellow copper or gold, or a cross likewise filled with yellow copper or gold; among some blades also have an incision in one part of their structure, into which a nail of gold or yellow copper has been worked. Sometimes in the most well-formed Ancient Yemeni swords, that nail was also nailed with gold into its structure or tip. It has a curvature resembling the dasaktayn, in the part next to the groove, and no watering comes out of it. The groove stops short at the end of the sharp edge of the tip by three fingers and less. There is the like of an incision in those three fingers, and within that three fingers there’s no watering apparent. Their heads are more tapering then those of the Yemeni.
2.8 Sulaymani Swords
The iron of the sword is similar to Frankish swords, except it is more lustrous and foreign of manufacture. The first and last part of the sword are even, not tapered. If the head is very fine at the bottom then it is only slightly watered. There is no image or cross on these blades and their tangs resemble those of the Yemeni. This is also the case for the tangs of the Frankish swords, except those ones have more amply endowed tangs and all their qualities are equal.
swords: Meaning Indigenous to the place of manufacture, and are neither Ancient
Al-Kindi describes these swords as being of every fashion. There’s a kind called “liberated,” which is the sword worked in Khurasan in the same of Qala’i swords. It has small knots, one next to the other from top to bottom, worked with a chisel, then ground with a grinding tool so that the watering becomes even. These particular knots can be seen in rows, one following another, one resembling the Qala’i. It’s iron is black. The broadest it can be is two and a half fingers. If anything of it does appear before the throwing (of the compound/chemical/substance), the person will see a supple dark iron, part of it following part. Its distinguishing marks are that the incision of the tang are fine, it has the same forging as the Qala’i and its price can reach thirty dirhams.
Among the indigenous Basran swords are those with knotting resembling the nature of the Salmani. They have a smooth nature in which suppleness is apparent, with blackness and darkness that is twice as patent in the sun as in the shade, with a fineness that the hand will recoil from (from the sharpness). Traces of polishing tools are apparent. The swords vary in shape, both being broad and slim, short and long, and none of the Basrans forge them except for a man called Sulayman, he forged the blades in 714CE and stopped his work in 727CE. These swords were bought to Jibal and sold at the rate of Yemeni swords. They were sold for two and a half dinars. Also among them are those forged in Basra, the price of which does not exceed four to six dirhmas; these tend to have small thin tongues and distorted shapes.
The Damascan swords are all filed and they are the ones forged in the past. They are very trenchant if they are on their first quenching. They are long, filed in a shape that’s the same as the Salmani forged in Mansura. Their iron resembles the white swords, though it has a different nature, and they are the most trenchant of the indigenous swords, their prices being between fifteen and twenty dirhams.
2.10 Soft Iron Swords
These are the types of swords found among the Shurat and Byzantines, and among the swords of India. Among the swords of India are called Mandali, and this sword is recognised by its distorted/unusual shape, curvedness and by the trace of the file on the blade. Neither little nor much watering appears in the soft iron blades. As for the Byzantine and Kharijite swords, they are plain, thin, long, swords with distorted shapes. If you look at the sword, look at places inside it and outside it.
 G. Hoyland, Robert and Gilmour, Brian, Medieval Islamic Swords and Swordmaking: Kindi’s treatise ‘On swords and their kinds’ (Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2018) p. 25
 Biruni Jamahir, 254;
 An almost mythical blade that was highly prized for its imperviousness to damage, temperance and sharpness.
 Robert Hoyland has suggested two to five ratl is approximately 0.6-1.5 kg or 1.5-3.75 ibs, p. 65.
 This probably means the shape is distorted.
 These clothes were reknowned for their embroidery work and is a possible reference to the design of the blade due to pattern welding.
 Presumerably, this means the name of a sword which could represent a dual ending e.g. double bladed or double edged.
 The reference to soft Iron for Byzantine swords shows, at least in the 9th Century, that manufacturing process had changed little in the Roman Empire since Late Antiquity. Biruni mentions both Soft and Hard Iron almost 200 years later and this might be the due to external influences, in the introduction of hard iron, in blade making.