[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

[ This article is written in personna. ]

Concerning the Archery of al-Islam

In the name of ALLAH, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
My Lord, ease my task for me, O Thou who art bountiful.
Praise be to ALLAH, just, all knowing, all powerful
He who protects His friends, He who shatters his foes,
Who grants victory to the Faith, who subdues Unbelief
He who pays to all mankind its due, punishment or reward
Praise to him that has rendered His supporters victorious and subdued His enemies
And blessing and peace of ALLAH upon our lord Muhammad, Bearer of the True Message, and to his Family and his Companion train.

Final Stage of construction. Dotted line shows finished form of nock Now I have heard that among the Franks, when a man desires a bow, he hacks off a branch from a tree, cuts in each end a notch, strings it, and that they call a bow. But among us it is otherwise.

To make a bow is the work of a year. The core is made of wood, most commonly in five parts, although some use more or less. These parts are the grip, the two limbs, and the siyahs. The parts are spliced together and glued with great care; when the bow is complete, one cannot see where one ends and the next begins. This work is done in autumn, and then also the horn is sawed and fitted to the core. In the winter the horn is glued to the belly of the bow and bound there, and the glue is permitted to dry for some months. In spring the sinew is applied to the back of the bow. During the summer the bow is strung and shaped, and at the last painted.

Those familiar with the bows of al-Islam will know that they bend one way unstrung and the opposite way when they are strung. And when the bow is strung and held to be shot, the belly of the bow is towards the archer, and that is horn; the back of the bow is away from the archer, and that is sinew. And a bow is like a man, for it may be bent bellywise, but if it is bent backwards it will snap. The bow is made of wood, horn, and sinew even as a man is made of bone, flesh, and arteries and is bound together by glue as the man by blood. As to the size of the bow, it is commonly about one cubit and two thirds and one quarter of a cubit (50.2 inches), measured from nock to nock, but some are longer or shorter. And the measure used is the carpenter's cubit, for that is of the same length throughout al-Islam.

The string is best made from raw wound silk; some bind it with glue. Others make it out of animal hide suitably treated. The long arrow should have a length that permits the head to come to the thumb on the bow hand when the middle of the right index finger is brought right back to the lobe of the ear. This comes to one and one-eighth cubits and one-half of a qirat (30 inches) for a man of medium height. The short arrow, which is used with the sipar, is about half of that length.

The sipar is a sort of small shield which straps onto the wrist of the archer's bow hand. The point of the arrow can then be drawn back behind the bow, resting on the sipar; when the arrow is released the sipar guides the arrow back to the bow and from there where it is aimed, inshallah. There are other sorts of arrow guides as well. With such devices, short arrows or darts can be shot great distances to annoy the horses of the enemy.

It is established in authentic tradition that the Prophet said, "The angels attend no human sport save archery." Therefore one should regard going to the shooting range as going to the mosque, being aware of the exalted status of the guests that there attend you, and should make the lesser ablution before beginning to shoot.

To use the bow, the arrow goes on the right side above the bow hand, and the string is gripped with the thumb. The end of the thumb is held down by the middle part of the first finger. The nock of the arrow lies in the notch between the thumb and the fleshy part of the hand just below the first finger. Some archers wear a thumb ring to protect the ball of the thumb from the string when it is released. Others use a leather guard for the thumb. There are even some who shoot without any thumb guard at all.

In shooting for sport, there are many games. One is flight shooting, in which the contest is not in striking a target but in casting an arrow as far as may be. Those very skilled in this art can shoot an arrow for half a mile, or it may be a little more.

Another game is gourd shooting, in which the target is on the top of a tall pole. The archer rides past the pole and shoots up at the target, as if he were hunting a bird. The story is told of one archer who had a saddle made for him with a low back. At a great festival, while competing in the gourd shoot, he rode past the mast so that all watching thought he had missed his shot, then leaned right back with his head on the rump of his horse and, shooting up and back, struck and broke the gourd.

As to accuracy, a good archer shooting at sixty bows distance (75 yards) should be able to put his arrows into an object five spans across (about 3 feet).

When hunting lions, one must remember that the lion is also hunting, and his manner of doing so is to run behind the horse, leap up, and drag down the rider. Therefore he who would hunt lions prepares for it by riding along, shooting arrows into the hoofprints made by his horse. In this way he develops skill in shooting a target just behind him.

For this exercise, and also for shooting an enemy in a well, or at the bottom of a wall, or an enemy close beside you when you are mounted and he is not, it is well to be skilled in the manner of shooting that is called jarmaki. To do this, after drawing your bow you tuck your head under your right arm so that your bow hand lies against the nape of your neck. In this position you can shoot an arrow straight down without leaning out, or to the rear of your horse on either side.

I write with the purpose of sharing my small knowledge of these matters with those desirous of wisdom, but it is Allah only that is all-knowing. May my words be

pleasing to Allah and to His Messenger-
may Allah bless him, his house
and his Companion Train
and grant them

"Every time the archer shoots he should invoke God-exalted be He-with the words, 'in the name of God' and, whenever he makes a hit, he should praise Him to whom belongs all power and glory. He should regard accurate shooting as proceeding from the bounty of God-exalted be He-and the divine guidance and assistance. If he misses, he should not become exasperated or despair of God's refreshing justice, nor should he revile himself or his bow or his arrows. To do so is to commit an outrage and a violation of all that is just because a man who behaves in this way in his ignorance attributes his failure to those persons and things to which no blame attaches. Those who do this sort of thing, therefore, will incur the rancour of both angels and mankind and sin to no avail. Anger is, furthermore, the chief cause of low scoring."


[ picture ] The Manner of Shooting that is called Jarmaki An Archer

Figures by Lady Alessandra Aldobrandini di Firenze (Alessandra Kelley).

Notes to the Above

Most of the material above is based on (or lifted almost verbatim from) Saracen Archery, an annotated translation of The Complete Manual of Archery for Cadets, written in the fourteenth century by Taybugha al-Baklamishi al-Yunani. Anyone seriously interested in the subject of Islamic archery should read both it and Klopsteg.

Some readers may be interested in the range of the Middle Eastern bows and how they compared to the English longbow. In discussing range, it is important to distinguish between the range achieved in flight shooting, a sport in which the objective was to shoot an arrow as far as possible, and the range at which a bow was effective in combat. So far as flight shooting is concerned, the best information available is from the Ottomans. Interpretation of the records is somewhat confused by uncertainty over the exact length of the units in which they were measured, but it appears that Ottoman archers in the eighteenth century achieved shots of over 900 yards. So far as I know, there is no similar evidence for either Taybugha's period (fourteenth century) or Cariadoc's (c. 1100 A.D.); I have simply assumed comparable ranges. In the eighteenth century, English longbow enthusiasts regarded 350 yards as about the maximum distance that a bow could throw an arrow (Payne-Gallwey, Klopsteg). As of 1967, the modern world record (for a hand bow) was 851 yards 2 feet 9 inches.

Latham and Patterson conclude, from a variety of sources, that short arrows, fired using an arrow guide of some sort, could be used for harassing fire at ranges of about four hundred yards; full length arrows would have had a shorter effective range. It appears from Payne-Gallwey's observations of English castle architecture that the effective range of the longbow was less than three hundred yards and may have been less than a hundred and seventy.

Readers of Payne-Gallwey should be warned that his book contains at least one important error. The illustration of how a thumb ring is worn and used has the ring upside down, as judged by all other sources I have seen and my own experience. Use of the ring as shown might be hazardous to the user's thumb. It is worth noting that the book also contains an illustration of the author shooting a Turkish bow. He is using the standard modern release (three fingers on the string) and shooting off the left side of the bow in the European fashion.


Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, Bt, The Crossbow, Bramhall House, N.Y.

J. D. Latham and W. F. Paterson, Saracen Archery, Holland Press, London 1970.

Paul E. Klopsteg, Turkish Archery and the Composite Bow, published by the author, Evanston, IL 1947.

(This was published in the Compleat Anachronist pamphlet on Archery in 1988)

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir