Muhammad: The Warrior Prophet
By Richard A. Gabriel
The long shadow of Muhammad stretches across centuries of strife to the present. Today an estimated 1.4 billion Muslims around the globe follow his teachings—the word of God as revealed to Muhammad and set down in the Koran—making Islam the world’s second-largest religion behind Christianity. But despite Muhammad’s remarkable accomplishments, there is no modern account of his life that examines his role as Islam’s first great general and the leader of a successful insurgency. Had Muhammad not succeeded as a commander, however, Islam might have been relegated to a geographic backwater—and the conquest of the Byzantine and Persian empires by Arab armies might never have occurred.
The idea of Muhammad as a military man will be new to many. Yet he was a truly great general. In the space of a single decade he fought eight major battles, led eighteen raids, and planned another thirty-eight military operations where others were in command but operating under his orders and strategic direction. Wounded twice, he also twice experienced having his positions overrun by superior forces before he managed to turn the tables on his enemies and rally his men to victory. More than a great field general and tactician, he was also a military theorist, organizational reformer, strategic thinker, operational-level combat commander, political-military leader, heroic soldier, and revolutionary. The inventor of insurgency warfare and history’s first successful practitioner, Muhammad had no military training before he commanded an army in the field.
Muhammad’s intelligence service eventually rivaled that of Byzantium and Persia, especially when it came to political information. He reportedly spent hours devising tactical and political stratagems, and once remarked that “all war is cunning,” reminding modern analysts of Sun Tzu’s dictum, “all war is deception.” In his thinking and application of force Muhammad was a combination of Karl von Clause¬witz and Niccolo Machiavelli, for he always employed force in the service of political goals. An astute grand strategist, he used non¬mili¬tary methods to strengthen his long-term position, sometimes even at the expense of short-term military considerations.
Muhammad’s belief in Islam and his own role as the “Messenger of God” revolutionized Arabian warfare and resulted in the creation of the ancient world’s first army motivated by a coherent system of ideological belief. The ideology of holy war (jihad) and martyrdom (shahada) for the faith was transmitted to the West during the wars between Muslims and Christians in Spain and France, where it changed traditional Christian pacifistic thinking on war, brought into being a coterie of Christian warrior saints, and provided the Catho¬lic Church with its ideological justification for the Crusades. Ideology—whether religious or secular—has remained a primary component of military ventures ever since.
Muhammad forged the military instrument of the Arab conquests that began within two years of his death by bringing into being a completely new kind of army not seen before in Arabia. He introduced no fewer than eight major military reforms that transformed the armies and conduct of war in Arabia. Just as Philip of Macedon transformed the armies of Greece so his successor, Alexander, could employ them as instruments of conquest and empire, Muhammad transformed the armies of Arabia so his successors could use them to defeat the armies of Persia and Byzantium and establish the heartland of the empire of Islam.
Muhammad was first and foremost a revolutionary, a fiery religious guerrilla leader who created and led the first genuine national insurgency in antiquity that is comprehensible in modern terms. Unlike conventional generals, Muhammad did not seek the defeat of a foreign enemy or invader; rather, he sought to replace the existing Arabian social order with a new one based upon a radically different ideological worldview. To achieve his revolutionary goals Muhammad utilized all the means recognized by modern analysts as characteristic of a successful insurgency in today’s world.
Although Muhammad began his struggle for a new order with a small guerrilla cadre capable of undertaking only limited hit-and-run raids, by the time he was ready to attack Mecca a decade later that small guerrilla force had grown into a large conventional army with integrated cavalry and infantry units capable of conducting large-scale combat operations. It was the first truly national military force in Arab history, and it was this conventional military instrument that Muhammad’s successors used to forge a great empire.
Muhammad’s rise to power was a textbook example of a successful insurgency, in all likelihood the first such example in antiquity. The West has been accustomed to thinking of the Arab conquests that followed Muhammad in purely conventional military terms. But the armies that achieved those conquests did not exist in Arabia before Muhammad. It was Muhammad’s successful unconventional guerrilla operations, his successful insurgency, that brought those armies into existence. The later Arab conquests, as regards both strategic concept and the new armies as in¬struments of military method, were the consequences of Muhammad’s prior military success as the leader of an insurgency.
This aspect of Muhammad’s military life as a guerrilla insurgent is likely to strike the reader as curious. But if the means and methods used by modern military analysts to characterize insurgency warfare are employed as categories of analysis, it is clear that Muhammad’s campaign to spread Islam throughout Arabia fulfilled all of the criteria. One requirement for an insurgency is a determined leader whose followers regard him as special in some way and worthy of their following him. In Muhammad’s case his own charismatic personality was enhanced by his deeply held belief that he was God’s Messenger, and that to follow Muhammad was to obey the dictates of God himself.
Insurgencies also require a messianic ideology, one that espouses a coherent creed or plan to replace the existing social, political, and economic order with a new order that is better, more just, or ordained by history or even by God himself. Mu¬hammad used the new religious creed of Islam to challenge basic traditional Arab social institutions and values as oppressive and unholy and worthy of replacement. To this end he created the ummah, or community of believers, God’s community on earth, to serve as a messianic replacement for the clans and tribes that were the basis of traditional Arab society. One of Mu¬hammad’s most important achievements was the establishment of new social institutions that greatly altered and in some cases completely replaced those of the old Arab social order.
Successful insurgencies also require a disciplined cadre of true believers to do the work of organizing and recruiting new members. Muhammad’s revolutionary cadre consisted of the small group of original converts he attracted in Mecca and took with him to Medina. These were the muhajirun, or emigrants. The first converts among the clans of Medina, the ansar, or helpers, also filled the ranks of the cadre. Within this revolutionary cadre was an inner circle of talented men, some of them later converts. Some, like Abdullah Ibn Ubay and Khalid al-Walid, were experienced field commanders and provided a much-needed source of military expertise. Muhammad’s inner circle advised him and saw to it that his directives were carried out. These advisers held key positions during the Prophet’s lifetime and fought among themselves for power after his death.
Insurgencies require an armed force and the manpower to sustain them. It was from the original small cadre of guerrillas that the larger conventional army could be grown that would ultimately permit the insurgency to engage its enemies in set-piece battles when the time and political conditions were right. Muhammad may have been the first commander in history to understand and implement the doctrine later espoused by General Vo Nguyen Giap of North Vietnam as “people’s war, people’s army.” Muhammad established the belief among his followers that God had commandeered all Muslims’ purposes and property for His efforts and that all Muslims had a responsibility to fight for the faith. Everyone—men, women, and even children—had an obligation for military service in defense of the faith and the ummah that was the community of God’s chosen people on earth. It is essential to understand that the attraction of the Islamic ideology more than anything else produced the manpower that permitted Muhammad’s small revolutionary cadre to evolve into a conventional armed force capable of large-scale engagements.
The rapid growth of Muhammad’s insurgent army is evident from the following figures. At the Battle of Badr (624 ce), Muhammad could only put 314 men in the field. Two years later at Second Badr, 1,500 Muslims took the field. By the 628 battle at Kheibar, the Muslim army had grown to 2,000 combatants. When Muhammad mounted his assault on Mecca (630) he did so with 10,000 men. And at the Battle of Hunayn a few months later the army numbered 12,000 men. Some sources record that Muhammad’s expedition to Tabuk later the same year was composed of 30,000 men and 10,000 cavalry, but this is probably an exaggeration. What is evident from the figures, however, is that his insurgency grew very quickly in terms of its ability to recruit military manpower.
Muhammad’s ability to obtain sufficient weapons and equipment had an important political advantage. Many of the insurgency’s converts came from the poorest elements of the bedouin clans, people too impoverished to afford weapons and armor. By supplying these converts with expensive military equipment, Muhammad immediately raised their status within the clan and guaranteed their loyalty to him, if not always to the creed of Islam. In negotiations with bedouin chiefs he made them gifts of expensive weaponry. Horses and camels were equally important military assets, for without them raids and the conduct of operations over great distances were not possible. Muhammad obtained his animals in much the same manner as he did his weapons and with equal success. At Badr the insurgents had only two horses. Six years later at Hunayn Muhammad’s cavalry squadrons numbered 800 horse and cavalrymen.
An insurgency must be able to sustain the popular base that supports the fighting elements. To accomplish this, Muhammad changed the ancient customs regarding the sharing of booty taken in raids. The chief of an Arab clan or tribe traditionally took one-fourth of the booty for himself. Muhammad decreed that he receive only one-fifth, and even this the chief took not for himself but in the name of the ummah. Under the old ways individuals kept whatever booty they had captured. Muhammad required that all booty be turned in to a common pool where it was shared equally among all combatants who had participated in the raid. Most important, Muhammad established that the first claimants on the booty that had been taken in the name of the ummah were the poor and the widows and orphans of the soldiers killed in battle. He also used the promise of a larger share of booty to strike alliances with bedouin clans, some of whom remained both loyal and pagan to the end, fighting for loot rather than for Islam.
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 Muhammad’s house recruited from among the most pious, enthusiastic followers. 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 moment’s notice to carry out whatever task Muhammad set for them.
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 Muhammad’s 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 insurgency’s 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 enemy’s 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 insurgency’s 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 present his message. 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.
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 Muhammad’s death many of the clans that had sworn allegiance to Islam recanted, resulting in the War of the Apostates, or Riddah. The brilliance of Muhammad’s 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, whose 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 preceded 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, God’s 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, Muhammad always extracted an honor oath from their chiefs to obey his orders during the battle.
The establishment of a unified military command gave Muhammad’s 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 army’s offensive power.
Traditional Arab warfare emphasized the courageous performance of individual warriors in battle, not the clan’s 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.
Muhammad’s 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 soldier’s loyalty that transcended the clan. Many of Muhammad’s 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.
Muhammad’s 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 warrior’s 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.” Muhammad’s 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 Muhammad’s most important innovations was convincing his troops that they were doing God’s work on earth. There were of course soldiers of other faiths who fought on religious grounds. But no army before Muhammad’s ever placed religion at the center of military motivation and defined the soldier primarily as an instrument of God’s will on earth. The soldiers of Islam came to see themselves as fighting under God’s 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 soldier’s motivation in Muhammad’s day was the idea that death was not something to be feared but rather embraced. Muhammad’s 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 God’s 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. Muhammad’s 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 Muhammad’s 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. Muhammad’s 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 Arab 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 and he also introduced the new dimension of psychological warfare to weaken the will of his enemies. Various texts also mention Muhammad’s 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, Muhammad’s 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 asceti¬cism 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 loyalty—the faith—and 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. Muhammad’s 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 Muhammad’s death, the armies of the Arab conquests 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 caravaner’s 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 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.
Muhammad’s 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 than it had ever been.
Within two hundred years after the Muslim conquests of Byzantium and Persia, Muhammad’s reform influence on the conventional Arab armies had disappeared, displaced by the more powerful influence of Byzantine, Persian, and Turkic military practices. Muhammad’s 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.
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: Islam’s First Great General (Oklahoma University Press, 2007).