Islamís origins Ė Muhammadís military genius

Review of Muhammad: Islamís First Great General by Richard A Gabriel, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2007.

A movement that began with some raids on Meccaís caravans by a disaffected exile was, within forty years, able to conquer the Byzantine and Persian empires. How did backward Arabs from the desert achieve this amazing feat? Military historian Richard Gabriel presents the case that it was due to the strategic military innovations introduced by Muhammad, Islamís first great general. Without these, Islam would not have been established as a great religion.

It is a fascinating account. Gabriel provides four chapters on the strategic and personal background to Muhammadís campaigns, eight chapters on specific battles, and a final chapter on his military legacy. There are twelve maps. He discusses issues of terrain, climate, the role of camels and horses, supply logistics, strategy, tactics and leadership. He also considers the role of religion. Muhammadís war proclamations subsequently became significant parts of Islamic doctrine.

Islam is the only religion founded by a military leader. Muhammad transformed the armies and society of the Arabs. He was a revolutionary political leader, whose religious decrees proved decisive in his success. To current day Islamic apologists, who maintain that the meaning of jihad is "personal struggle", Gabrielís account may prove a salutary reality check. Muhammadís initial raids on caravans, then his defensive campaigns, his sieges of towns, and his battle success, led to the invasion and conquest of empires. No other religion has been instigated by these means. Without this success, Islam may have "remained one of a number of interesting religious sects relegated to a geographic backwater"(P.xviii).

In the Introduction Gabriel discusses his sources and his use of them. As with other biographies of Muhammad, Gabriel finds the most useful source to be Ibn Ishaqís The Life of Muhammad, which was written about ninety years after Muhammadís death. Whatever limits to authenticity that this entails, Gabriel is able to bring to his interpretation his special skills as a military historian. Stripped of its miraculous content, Muhammadís achievements are all the more remarkable. He attributes to Muhammad "no fewer than eight major military reforms that transformed the armies and the conduct of the war in Arabia".

Muhammad was a great strategic thinker, and every action had a calculated purpose. By his use of guerrilla war, of ambushes and raids, he "led the first national insurgency in history" (P.xx). His followers, bound together by oath, were inspired to battle with the promise of paradise in death. The power of this allegiance broke through traditional kinship loyalties of clan and tribe, allowing larger-scale operations. Muhammad required total commitment. All Muslims were soldiers. The ummah, or community of believers, was instilled with the belief that they were their godís chosen people on earth. These concepts brought unrivalled motivation to troops. Military success attracted more recruits. The booty from raids was shared from a common pool by all combatants, apart from the one-fifth kept by Muhammad himself. The prospect of booty from pillage and loot was an on-going imperative for further action.

Muhammadís campaigns brought an unprecedented degree of ruthlessness to Arab warfare. Muhammad surrounded himself with a loyal bodyguard, or suffah, who acted as a secret police. Their tasks included assassination and terror. In addition to eliminating opponents, this served two strategic purposes. Firstly, it kept discipline in the troops, as the penalty for apostasy was death. Secondly, it struck fear into the minds of his enemies. In this regard, Muhammadís revelations also served his strategic purposes.

Following the bookís Introduction, which gives a sketch of what is to follow, Gabrielís first two chapters outline the geographic and strategic setting. He then describes the events of Muhammadís life up until the time of his seeking refuge in Medina at the age of fifty-five. The following chapters describe the beginnings of the insurgency, the battles and triumphs that occurred over the remaining years until his death. The final chapter is an account of how his successors used the techniques he had developed to successfully raid, and then invade and conquer the surrounding Byzantine and Persian empires.

In Gabrielís outline of the strategic setting, he describes several fortuitous factors that were in Muhammadís favour. Firstly there was little organised opposition to his radical religious views. The Arabs were mainly polytheistic, but there was no priestly class to resist his proselytising. The Byzantines and Persians had adopted various forms of monotheism, all of which were continually wracked by schisms. It was never thought that the Arabs would pose a threat to their religion, so there was no imperial response to the new creed. However, most important was the fact that the Byzantines and Persians were severely weakened by decades of war with each other. This had severely depleted their armies and their resources, leaving their boundaries with the Arabs vulnerable.

Prior to Muhammad, the Arabs were well accustomed to warfare in the form of raids in which a group of Bedouins would attack another clan to steal their flocks, camels or women. Battles were typically tactical engagements only, limited in scope, duration and frequency. Blood feuds could be more serious. Muhammad was able to unite his troops in religious zeal and unleash the fervour of a blood feud, but now against members of the same clan or tribe. This was unprecedented in Arab warfare. In doing this he was always careful to build up his capacity in weapons and strategic resources.

So, who was Muhammad and how did he get to be such an innovative leader? Gabriel gives an account of his time in Mecca. Muhammad was born in 570 CE, into the Quraish tribe. This tribe had earlier organised an annual pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca to worship the idols. This had become a lucrative business for the tribe, providing services to pilgrims. His father Abdullah died before he was born, and he was orphaned at age six when his mother Aminah died. At age twelve he accompanied his uncle on a caravan journey to Damascus. A couple of years later a tribal war broke out that lasted five years, which would have provided him with some experience of military combat, at least from the sidelines. At twenty-five he travelled in a caravan to Syria. On his return, the caravan owner, Khadijah, proposed marriage to him. Muhammad was a good-looking man of medium stature with thick black hair, a beard and long eyelashes. His marriage increased his prestige and influence.

Muhammad had his first revelation experience at age 40. These were accompanied by pain and fever. Gabriel speculates that these symptoms are consistent with malaria, which can also induce hallucinations. He could have contracted malaria during his travels. Subsequently in Medina, unlike other Meccans, he did not contract the disease, which suggests he may have already had immunity. His experience with travel and the deployment and protection of caravans would have acquainted him with logistical planning. Also during his travels he would have been exposed to monotheism. He was a thoughtful man and spent time in the hills in meditation. His denunciation of idol worship at the Kaaba made him very unpopular, given its importance as a local industry. His claims of divine revelations were not widely believed. Khadijah died when Muhammad was about forty-nine.

He continued to work as a merchant. To avoid trouble, Muhammad restricted his preachings to pilgrims and traders from Medina. After some time, he was able to make an alliance with some of them, and they became his converts. They joined him in a blood pledge. He proclaimed a revelation giving him permission to fight (Quran 22:39-42). Gabriel argues that the significance of this was that he anticipated the subsequent need for a violent struggle. Shortly after this, in 621 CE, he fled to Medina, fearing for his life.

Seven months after arriving in Medina, he began the insurgency by attacking the Meccan caravans. The tribes of Medina disapproved of his raids. At first the raids were unsuccessful. When success came it was in the sacred month when war was prohibited. Muhammad then received a revelation permitting war in the sacred month (Quran 2:217). In the Muslimsí first major battle, in 624, Muhammad had three hundred men. Successive chapters detail his intriguing progress, from the successful defence of Medina against the Meccans in 627, to his march on Mecca in 630 with ten thousand men, following which the Meccans capitulated.

Unlike his mass slaughter of a Jewish tribe in Medina, Muhammad was more merciful on his conquest of Mecca. His executions were limited to those who had spoken against him in the past. He consolidated his position with the conquest of neighbouring cities. But problems were brewing. He appeared to be favouring his own tribe of Meccans. The need to sustain his ever-larger army with booty and loot led to the need for campaigns farther afield. This poverty was exacerbated by the fact that "the Islamic laws against usury had dried up most of the commercial activity" in Mecca and beyond (P.195).

Only ten months after his conquest of Mecca, Muhammad was impelled to launch a seasonally ill-timed raid against Byzantine border tribes in Syria. Some troops in Medina were close to rebellion, and so Muhammad proclaimed a revelation urging them to fight, threatening punishment if they did not (Quran 8:38). The expedition was a failure, and he returned without loot. This intensified the political discontent. To prevent rebellion, Muhammad then imposed harsh political control, imposed a tax and proclaimed a new revelation urging Muslims to "slay the idolaters wherever you find them" (Quran 9:1-5). All the tribes of Arabia were required to convert to Islam or face death. Surrounding tribal leaders pledged their loyalty. A year later, in 632, while preparing for another raid on Syria, Muhammad took ill and died. As Gabriel puts it, "that was the end of Muhammad ibn Abdallah" (P. 204).

However it was not the end of Muhammadís armies. Abu Bakr, one of Muhammadís close associates became leader. Some of the tribes refused to pay the tax that Muhammad had ordained. Abu Bakr declared war on all those who would not obey, declaring them apostates. Resistance from opponents was forestalled by Abu Bakr proclaiming Muhammad to be the last prophet. Abu Bakr thus ensured the success of Islam as a religion by the forced conversion of all of Arabia, during the "war on the apostates". United under his rule, in 633 Abu Bakr was ready to launch attacks against the Byzantines.

The subsequent success of the Arab armies was due to the legacy of Muhammad. The ingredients were a united command, strategic thinking and logistical planning. Of decisive importance were the unity and motivation provided by religious zeal and the lure of deathly paradise. This was the critical factor that led to the conquest of the Persians and the Byzantines, followed rapidly by the establishment of the Islamic Empire. Current day Islam is the legacy of this empire, in the same way that Christianity is the current-day legacy of the Roman Empire. However with the Islamic Empire, religion was critical to its establishment. Judaism and Old Testament Christianity can both be regarded as warrior religions, but war is more of an integral feature in the doctrines of Islam. It is important to recognise this in understanding present-day Islamism.

Muhammad seized a historic opportunity, and fortune came like a flood. It is a salutary lesson in the historical processes by which religions are propagated and sustained. The value of Gabrielís biography is that it humanises Muhammad and makes the rise of Islam more explicable. If circumstances were to permit it, Gabrielís narrative would make an excellent script for an epic film, in which the role of Muhammad is depicted. The story, stripped of its supernatural embellishments, certainly deserves a wide audience. In challenging popular consciousness, it would have long-term benefits. Regrettably the power of religion and its ability to capture the mind, supplanting reason and objectivity, make that proposition problematic.

It is now time that we should be able to subject any religion to rational evaluation, without fear or intimidation. In the case of Islam, this is especially desirable. Only if we can learn to live without the thrall of warrior religions, may we aspire to live in a more benign and humanist world, governed by the universal ethical principles of compassion, honesty, justice and freedom.

Dr John L Perkins is an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research and is a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.

This article was published in D!ssent, No.29, Autumn/Winter 2009