| The leader of an insurgency must take great
care to guard his authority from challenges, including those that come
from within the movement itself. Muhammad had many enemies, and he was
always on guard against an attempt upon his life. Like other leaders,
Muhammad surrounded himself with a loyal group of followers who acted
as his bodyguard and carried out his orders without question. For this
purpose he created the suffah, a small cadre of loyal followers who lived
in the mosque next to Muhammads house. Recruited from among the
most pious, enthusiastic, and fanatical followers, they came from impoverished
backgrounds. The suffah members spent much of their time studying Islam.
They were devoted to Muhammad and served not only as his life guard but
also as a secret police that could be called upon at a moments notice
to carry out whatever task Muhammad set for them, including assassination
No insurgency can survive without an effective intelligence apparatus. As early as when Muhammad left Mecca in 622, he left behind a trusted agent, his uncle Abbas, who continued to send him reports on the situation there. Abbas served as an agent-in-place for more than a decade, until Mecca itself fell to Muhammad.
In the beginning Muhammads operations suffered from a lack of tactical intelligence. His followers were mostly townspeople with no experience in desert travel. On some of the early operations Muhammad had to hire bedouin guides. As the insurgency grew, however, his intelligence service became more organized and sophisticated, using agents-in-place, commercial spies, debriefing of prisoners, combat patrols, and reconnaissance in force as methods of intelligence collection.
Muhammad himself seems to have possessed a detailed knowledge of clan loyalties and politics within the insurgencys area of operations and used this knowledge to good effect when negotiating alliances with the Bedouins. He often conducted advance reconnaissance of the battlefields upon which he fought. In most cases his intelligence service provided him with sufficient information as to the enemys location and intentions in advance of any military engagement. We have no knowledge of exactly how the intelligence service was organized or where it was located. That it was part of the suffah, however, seems a reasonable guess.
Insurgencies succeed or fail to the degree that they are able to win the allegiance of great numbers of uncommitted citizens to support the insurgencys goals. Muhammad understood the role of propaganda and went to great lengths to make his message public and widely known. In a largely illiterate Arab society, the poet served as the major conveyor of political propaganda. Muhammad hired the best poets money could buy to sing his praises and denigrate his opponents. He issued proclamations regarding the revelations he received as the Messenger of God, and remained in public view to keep the vision of the new order and the promise of a heavenly paradise constantly before the public. He also sent missionaries to other clans and tribes to instruct the pagans in the new faith, sometimes teaching those groups to read and write in the process. Muhammad understood that the conflict was between the existing social order with its manifest injustices and his vision of the future, and he surpassed his adversaries in spreading his vision to win the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Arab population.
Terrorism seems to be an indispensable element of a successful insurgency, and it was no less so in Muhammads case. He used terrorism in two basic ways: First, he ensured discipline among his followers by making public examples of traitors and backsliders. In Muhammads day the penalty for apostasy in Islam was death. He also ordered some of his political enemies assassinated, including poets and singers who had publicly ridiculed him. When his armies marched into Mecca, for example, Muhammads suffah set about hunting down a list of old enemies marked for execution. Second, Muhammad used terrorism to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies on a large scale. In the case of the Jewish tribes of Medina, Muhammad seems to have ordered the death of the entire Beni Qaynuqa tribe and the selling of their women and children into slavery, though he was later talked out of it by the chief of one of his allies. On another occasion, again against a Jewish tribe of Medina, he ordered a ll the tribes adult males, some nine hundred, beheaded in the city square, the women and children sold into slavery, and their property distributed among his Muslim followers. Shortly after the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad declared war to the knife against all those who remained idolaters, instructing his followers to kill any pagans they encountered on the spot. His ruthlessness and brutality served to strengthen his hand with opponents and allies alike.
Muhammads use of terrorism does not detract from Islam as a religion any more than the history of the Israelite military campaign to conquer Canaan detracts from Judaism. Over time the violent origins of religions are forgotten and only the faith itself remains, so the founders of the creeds come to be remembered as untouched by the violence of the historical record. In Muhammads case the result has been to deemphasize the military aspects of his life and his considerable military accomplishments as Islams first great general and the inventor of the theory and practice of insurgency.
Muhammad also managed to bring about a revolution in the way Arabs fought wars, transforming their armies into instruments capable of large-scale combat operations that could achieve strategic objectives instead of only small-scale clan, tribal, or personal objectives. In so doing he created both the means and historical circumstances that transformed the fragmented Arab clans into a national military entity conscious of its own unique identity. As a result, the greatest commanders of the early Arab conquests were developed by Muhammad himself.
Had he not brought about a military revolution in Arab warfare, it is possible that Islam might not have survived in Arabia. Within a year of Muhammads death many of the clans that had sworn allegiance to Islam recanted, resulting in the War of the Apostates, or Riddah. The brilliance of Muhammads generals and the superior fighting skills of his new army made it possible for Islam to defeat the apostates and force them back into the religious fold. Commanding the Arab armies, those same generals carried out the Arab conquests of Persia and Byzantium. The old Arab way of war would have had no chance of success against the armies of either of those empires.
Muhammad transformed the social composition of Arab armies from a collection of clans, tribes, and blood kin loyal only to themselves into a national army loyal to a national social entity, the ummah. The ummah was not a nation or a state in the modern sense, but a body of religious believers under the unified command and governance of Muhammad. The ummah transcended the clans and tribes and permitted Muhammad to forge a common identity, national in scope, among the Arabs for the first time. It was leadership of this national entity that Muhammad claimed, not of any clan or tribe. Loyalty to the ummah permitted the national army to unify the two traditional combat arms of infantry and cavalry into a genuine combined arms force. Bedouins and town dwellers had historically viewed one another with suspicion. Arab infantry had traditionally been drawn from the people living in the towns, settlements, and oases of Arabia. Arab cavalry was traditionally drawn from bedouin clans, wh ose nomadic warriors excelled at speedy raids, surprise attacks, and elusive retreats, skills honed to a fine edge over generations of raiding.
These two different types of combatants possessed only limited experience in fighting alongside one another. Bound by clan loyalties and living in settlements, Arab infantry was steadfast and cohesive and could usually be relied upon to hold its ground, especially in the defense. Arab cavalry, on the other hand, was unreliable in a battle against infantry, often breaking off the fight to keep their precious mounts from being hurt or make off with whatever booty they had seized. Bedouin cavalry was, however, proficient at reconnaissance, surprise attack, protecting the flanks, and pursuing ill-disciplined infantry. Muhammad was the first Arab commander to successfully join both combat arms into a national army and use them in concert in battle. Thanks to the larger religious community of believers, the ummah, he could combine the two primary elements of traditional Arab society, town dwellers and bedouin tribes, into a single Arab national identity. That change was actually pr eceded by a shift in the social composition of Arab society.
Before Muhammad, Arab military contingents fought under the command of clan or tribal leaders, sometimes assembled in coalition with other clans or tribes. While the authority of these clan chiefs was recognized by their own clan, every chief considered himself the equal of any other, so there was no overall commander whose authority could compel the obedience or tactical direction of the army as a whole. Clan warriors fought for their own interests, often only for loot, and did not feel obligated to pursue the larger objectives of the army as a whole. They often failed to report to the battlefield, arrived late, or simply left the fight once they had captured sufficient loot. Warriors and horses were precious, and clan leaders resisted any higher tactical direction that might place their men and animals in danger. As a result, Arab battles were often little more than brief, disorganized brawls that seldom produced a decisive outcome.
To correct these deficiencies Muhammad established a unified command for his armies centered on himself. Within the ummah there was no distinction between the citizen and the soldier. All members of the community had an obligation to defend the clan and participate in its battles. The community of believers was truly a nation in arms, and all believers followed the commands of Muhammad, Gods Messenger. As commander in chief Muhammad established the principle of unified command by appointing a single commander with overall authority to carry out military operations. Sometimes he also appointed a second-in-command. Muhammad often personally commanded his troops in the field. He also appointed all the other commanders, who operated under his authority. As Muslims, all members of the army were equally bound by the same laws, and all clan members and their chiefs were subject to the same discipline and punishments. When operating with clans whose members were not Muslims, Muhamma d always extracted an honor oath from their chiefs to obey his orders during the battle.
The establishment of a unified military command gave Muhammads armies greater reliability in planning and in battle. Unified command also permitted a greater degree of coordination among the various combat elements of the army and the use of more sophisticated tactical designs that could be implemented with more certainty, thereby greatly increasing the armys offensive power.
Traditional Arab warfare emphasized the courageous performance of individual warriors in battle, not the clans ability to fight as a unit. The Arab warrior fought for his own honor and social prestige within the kin group, not for the clan per se. One consequence was that Arab armies and the clan units within them did not usually reflect a high degree of combat unit cohesion, the ability of the group to remain intact and fight together under the stress of battle.
Muhammads armies, by contrast, were highly cohesive, holding together even when they fought outnumbered or were overrun. The ummah served as a higher locus of the soldiers loyalty that transcended the clan. Many of Muhammads early converts had left their families and clans to follow the Prophet. There were many instances where members of the same clan or even families fought on opposite sides during his early battles. Religion turned out to be a greater source of unit cohesion than blood and clan ties, the obligations of faith replacing and overriding those of tradition and even family. His soldiers cared for each other as brothers, which under the precepts of Islam they were, and quickly gained a reputation for their discipline and ferocity in battle.
Muhammads armies demonstrated a higher degree of military motivation than traditional Arab armies. Being a good warrior had always been at the center of Arab values, but Muhammad enhanced the warriors status. His soldiers were always guaranteed a share in the booty. It became a common saying among Muslims that the soldier is not only the noblest and most pleasing profession in the sight of Allah, but also the most profitable. Muhammads soldiers were usually paid better than Persian or Byzantine soldiers.
But better pay was only a small part of the new Islamic warriors motivation. One of Muhammads most important innovations was convincing his troops that they were doing Gods work on earth. There were of course soldiers of other faiths who fought on religious grounds. But no army before Muhammads ever placed religion at the center of military motivation and defined the soldier primarily as an instrument of Gods will on earth. The soldiers of Islam came to see themselves as fighting under Gods instructions. The result, still evident in Islamic societies today, was a soldier who enjoyed much higher social status and respect than soldiers in Western armies.
A central element to an Islamic soldiers motivation in Muhammads day was the idea that death was not something to be feared but rather embraced. Muhammads pronouncement that those killed in battle would be welcomed immediately into a paradise of pleasure and eternal life was a powerful inducement to perform well in combat. To die fighting in defense of the faith was to fulfill Gods will and become a martyr. Life itself was subordinate to the needs of the faith. Muslim soldiers killed in battle were accorded the highest respect on the Arab scale of values. While those who died in battle had formerly been celebrated as examples of courage and selflessness, before Muhammad it was never suggested that death was to be welcomed or required to be a good soldier. Muhammads teachings changed the traditional Arab view of military sacrifice and produced a far more dedicated soldier than Arab armies had ever witnessed before.
Arab warfare prior to Muhammads reforms involved clans and tribes fighting for honor or loot. No commander aimed at the enslavement or extermination of the enemy, nor the occupation of his lands. Arab warfare had been tactical warfare, nothing more. There was no sense of strategic war in which long-term, grand strategic objectives were sought and toward which the tactical application of force was directed. Muhammad was the first to introduce to the Arabs the notion of war for strategic goals. His ultimate goal, the transformation of Arab society through the spread of a new religion, was strategic in concept. Muhammads application of force and violence, whether unconventional or conventional, was always directed at this strategic goal. Although he began as the founder of an insurgency, he was always Clausewitzian in his view that the use of force was a tactical means to the achievement of larger strategic objectives. Had Muhammad not introduced this new way of thinking to Ar ab warfare, the use of later Arab armies to forge a world empire would not only have been impossible, it would have been unthinkable.
Once war was harnessed to strategic objectives, it became possible to expand its application to introduce tactical dimensions that were completely new to Arab warfare. Muhammad attacked tribes, towns, and garrisons before they could form hostile coalitions; he isolated his enemies by severing their economic lifelines and disrupting their lines of communication; he was a master at political negotiation, forming alliances with pagan tribes when it served his interests; and he laid siege to cities and towns. He also introduced the new dimension of psychological warfare, employing terror and massacre as means to weaken the will of his enemies. Various texts also mention Muhammads use of catapults (manjaniq) and movable covered cars (dabbabah) in siege warfare. Most likely these siege devices were acquired in Yemen, where Persian garrisons had been located on and off over the centuries. Muhammad seems to have been the first Arab commander to use them in the north. Where once Arab warfare had been a completely tactical affair, Muhammads introduction of strategic war permitted the use of tactics in the proper manner, as a means to greater strategic ends. War, after all, is never an end in itself. It is, as Clausewitz reminds us, always a method, never a goal.
As an orphan, Muhammad had lacked even the most rudimentary military training typically provided by an Arab father. To compensate for this deficiency, he surrounded himself with experienced warriors and constantly sought their advice. In fact, he frequently appointed the best warriors of his former enemies to positions of command once they converted to Islam. He sought good officers wherever he found them, appointing young men to carry out small-scale raids to give them combat experience, and sometimes selecting an officer from a town to command a bedouin raid, to broaden his experience with cavalry. He always chose his military commanders on the basis of their proven experience and ability, never for their asceticism or religious devotion. He was the first to institutionalize military excellence in the development of a professional Arab officer corps. From that corps of trained and experienced field commanders came the generals who commanded the armies of the Arab conquests .
We have little information on how Muhammad trained his soldiers, but it is almost certain he did so. There are clear references to training in swimming, running, and wrestling. The early soldiers of Islam had left their clan and family loyalties behind to join the ummah. Converts had to be socialized to a new basis of military loyaltythe faithand new military units created with soldiers from many clans. References in various texts suggest that Muhammad trained these units in rank and drill, sometimes personally formed them up and addressed them before a battle, and deployed them to fight in disciplined units, not as individuals as was the common practice. These disciplined units could then be trained to carry out a wider array of tactical designs than had previously been possible. Muhammads use of cavalry and archers in concert with his infantry was one result. While Arab fathers continued to train their sons in warfare long after Muhammads death, the armies of the Arab c onquests and later those of the Arab empire instituted formal military training for recruits.
Muhammad had been an organizer of caravans for twenty-five years before he began his insurgency, and he showed the caravaners concern for logistics and planning. His expertise in those areas permitted him to project force and conduct military operations over long distances across inhospitable terrain. During that time he made several trips to the north along the spice road, for example, and gained a reputation for honesty and as an excellent administrator and organizer. Such expeditions required extensive attention to detail and knowledge of routes, rates ofMuhammad had been an organizer of caravans for twenty-five years before he began his insurgency, and he showed the caravaners concern for logistics and planning. His expertise in those areas permitted him to project force and conduct military operations over long distances across inhospitable terrain. During that time he made several trips to the north along the spice road, for example, and gained a reputation for hone sty and as an excellent administrator and organizer. Such expeditions required extensive attention to detail and knowledge of routes, rates of march, distances between stops, water and feeding of animals, location of wells, weather, places of ambush, etc.knowledge that served him well as a military commander. In 630 he led an army of twenty to thirty thousand men (sources disagree on the exact numbers) on a 250-mile march across the desert from Medina to Tabuk lasting eighteen to twenty days during the hottest season of the year. By traditional Arab standards, that trek was nothing short of astounding.
Muhammads transformation of Arab warfare was preceded by a revolution in the way Arabs thought about war, what might be called the moral basis of war. The old chivalric code that limited bloodletting was abandoned and replaced with an ethos less conducive to restraint, the blood feud. Extending that ethos beyond the ties of kin and blood to include members of the new community of Muslim believers inevitably made Arab warfare more encompassing and bloody than it had ever been.
Within two hundred years after the Muslim conquests of Byzantium and Persia, Muhammads reform influence on the conventional Arab armies had disappeared, displaced by the more powerful influence of Byzantine, Persian, and Turkic military practices. Muhammads military legacy is most clearly evident in the modern methodology of insurgency and in the powerful idea of jihad. In the years following his death, Islamic scholars developed an account of the Islamic law of war. This body of law, essentially complete by 850, ultimately rests on two foundations: the example and teaching of Muhammad and the word of God as expressed in the Koran. At the heart of the Islamic law of war is the concept of jihad, meaning to endeavor, to strive, to struggle, but in the West commonly understood to mean holy war.
According to classical Sunni doctrine, jihad can refer generically to any worthy endeavor, but in Islamic law it means primarily armed struggle for Islam against infidels and apostates. The central element of the doctrine of jihad is that the Islamic community (ummah) as a whole, under the leadership of the caliph (successor to Muhammad), has the duty to expand Islamic rule until the whole world is governed by Islamic law. Expansionist jihad is thus a collective duty of all Muslims. Land occupied by Muslims is known as the dar al-Islam, while all other territory is known as the dar al-harb, the land of war. Islamic law posits the inalienability of Islamic territory. If infidels attack the dar al-Islam, it becomes the duty of all Muslims to resist and of all other Muslims to assist them. Thus jihad can be defensive as well as offensive.
In the waging of jihad, all adult males, except for slaves and monks, are considered legitimate military targets and no distinction is made between military and civilians. Women and children may not be targeted directly, unless they act as combatants by supporting the enemy in some manner. The enemy may be attacked without regard for indiscriminate damage, and it is permissible to kill women in night raids when Muslim fighters cannot easily distinguish them from men.
Islamic law prohibits mutilation of the dead and torture of captives, although the definition of torture is problematic, since Muhammad himself imposed punishments that would easily qualify as torture today. Following Muhammads own practice, a jihadi may execute, enslave, ransom, or release enemy captives. Although captured women and children were not supposed to be killed, they could be enslaved, and Muslim men could have sexual relations with female slaves acquired by jihad (any marriage was deemed annulled by their capture).
Shiites, some ten to fifteen percent of Muslims, subscribe to a somewhat different doctrine of jihad, believing that it can only be waged under the command of the rightful leader of the Muslim community, whom they call imam. Shiites believe that the last imam went into hiding in 874 and that the collective duty to wage expansionist jihad is suspended until his return in the apocalyptic future. But Shiite scholars do affirm a duty to wage defensive jihad against infidel invaders.
Classical Islamic law is less tolerant of non-Muslims. Apostates from Islam, pagans, atheists, agnostics, and pseudo-scriptuaries, that is, members of cults that have appeared since Muhammads dayfor example, Sikhs, Bahais, Mormons, and Qadianisare only offered the option of conversion to Islam or death.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sunni Islamic modernists began to modify the classical law of war. The Indian Muslim thinker Sayyid Ahmad Khan argued that jihad was obligatory for Muslims only when they were prevented from exercising their faith, thus restricting jihad to defensive purposes. Mahmud Shaltut, an Egyptian scholar, likewise argued only for defensive jihad.
Conservative Sunnis, such as the Wahhabis of Arabia, and modern militant jihadis in Iraq and Pakistan still adhere to the traditional doctrine. It is among these militant conservative Muslims that the military legacy of Muhammad is most alive today.
Richard A. Gabriel, a military historian and adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, has authored forty-one books. His latest is Muhammad: Islams First Great General (Oklahoma University Press, 2007).