Warfare in the Early Caliphate: Revisiting A.I. Akram’s “The Sword of Allah”

September 11, 2014

Over the past two decades, the West has paid an incredible amount of attention to Islamist violence, from grand theories of civilizational decline to a surfeit ofmore contemporarysociological andpolitical studies. After a lull following the drawdown of U.S. and Western forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the rise of new groups – notably the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – have led to renewedinterest in various subjects related to Islamist violence.

And yet, for all the analysis, the origins of Islamic warfare remain remarkably under-examined. Major Western histories of political Islam do cover such events as the Battle of Tours, the Crusades, and even the Sunni-Shi’a schism and the Battle of Karbala (680 CE). But they often gloss over much of the earlier period. In fact, reliable accounts in English of the early years of Islam’s rapid growth – the three decades during which the faith spread from a single town, Medina, to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Egypt, Libya, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Central Asia – are few.

For those seeking a better understanding of Islamist warfare, this is unfortunate. The leaders and fighters of the Islamic State are unlikely to be swayed by historiographical arguments. But a glimpse into the military successes of the early caliphate suggests several differences between competing notions of Islam and warfare that have taken root across the Muslim world and in the West.

This is what makes Major General A.I. Akram’s book The Sword of Allah such a valuable resource for its overarching military history of the very early Islamic period (circa 613-642 CE). In the late 1960s, Akram, a retired Pakistani military officer, was disappointed with the “void” in Islamic military history in the curriculum of the Staff College at Quetta, and took it upon himself to write a history of early Islamic military successes. He chose as his vehicle the person of Khalid bin al-Waleed (known as “the Sword of Allah”) because he was perhaps the most outstanding general among the first generation of Mohammed’s followers.

Akram’s book is available in only a handful of U.S. university libraries and it has not been reviewed in a U.S. publication since the 1980s. But it has been used in military academies in his native Pakistan and by other armed forces in the Islamic world. To some degree, its scarcity is not unwarranted, for Akram was certainly no professional historian. He was unabashed about presenting a viewpoint that was sympathetic and even generous to his Islamic protagonists. And by his own admission in the introduction, he ignored many early Western sources, particularly Byzantine historians writing in Greek, a language he did not read.

Nonetheless, Akram rendered two incredibly valuable services. Firstly, he mined the early Arabic literature from the seventh to the tenth centuries, evaluated these texts critically when there were discrepancies, and rendered an accessible and engaging narrative. Secondly, he actually took the trouble to travel to most of the major battle sites – Uhud, Aleppo, Yarmouk, Busra, Kazima – logging 4000 miles by road in a matter of weeks in 1968 and 1969, from Kuwait and Syria, to Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He used his first-hand knowledge of the geography of the battlegrounds to critically examine some of the early accounts. As with most ancient and medieval historical texts, many of the early Muslim chronicles were written at some temporal and geographical distance from the events they described, and were thus inaccurate, misleading, or contradictory, particularly on matters of geography.

A few aspects of Akram’s engaging work will undoubtedly surprise all but the most knowledgeable observers of Islamic military history. The first is the remarkable frequency of defections to the Muslim forces by their opponents. Many of Mohammed’s closest followers – including Khalid himself – fought against him before switching sides. A large number of these defections – which were inevitably accompanied by conversion to Islam – were motivated by rank opportunism, and yet were accepted. Some of this remarkable ability to forgive former adversaries was, perhaps, natural for a new and fast-growing faith seeking both converts and recruits. But the ability of Islam’s early military leaders to let bygones be bygones was nonetheless striking. Indeed the Quraysh tribe in Mecca – from which Caliphs subsequently claimed descent – were the original military adversaries of Mohammed.

Perhaps no example is more dramatic than that of Abu Sufyan and his wife, Hind. Abu Sufyan, a Quraysh tribesman from Mecca and a distant relative of Mohammed, fought against the Prophet in some of the early engagements, which were little more than savage, heavily-armed brawls between contending factions. In one, the Battle of Badr, Mohammed’s uncle Hamza killed Abu Sufyan’s father-in-law. In a subsequent engagement, Hamza was killed and Hind – in retaliation for her father’s death – desecrated the body, cutting out and chewing Hamza’s liver and making jewellery of his ears and nose. Despite the barbarism of this act, which shocked even the early chroniclers, both Abu Sufyan and Hind eventually converted to Islam and were considered loyal followers of Mohammed.

A second characteristic of these early Islamic campaigns according to the early Arab sources – and Akram perhaps belabors this point – is the relative tolerance of the conquerors. The option of jizya – a tax paid by non-believers to their Muslim overlords, usually in lieu of military service – was often offered as a compromise between conversion to Islam and death.

One specific incident involves the withdrawal from Emessa of Muslim forces which had to regroup to counter the advance of a massive Roman army. In Akram’s telling, the Muslim commander Abu Ubeida returned the money taken as jizya from the citizens of Emessa – including the city’s Jews – on the grounds that he could no longer fulfill his end of the bargain to defend the city. The narrative is certainly self-serving. Yet what is interesting, however, is the degree to which such tolerance was upheld as a virtue by early Muslim military commanders.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the presence of women on or near battlefields is something that distinguishes the early Muslim armies from their Christian or pagan adversaries (and in some respects mirrors contemporary female jihadists). The women of the early Islamic armies, whose religious fervor is described often by Akram, were stationed behind the battle lines and used as a means to motivate male soldiers, shaming them into performing their martial duties. Armed with tent-poles and stones, they also helped to prevent desertions during battle, even joining the fray on occasion. The women’s presence may have made a crucial difference, tactically, by preventing Muslim troops from falling back during assaults by numerically superior opponents, such as at the pivotal Battle of Yarmouk.

None of this history – the frequent offer of jizya or the reconciliation with former enemies – is likely to persuade a force such as the contemporary “Islamic State” to stop its slaughter of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Nor will highlighting the prominent role of women in warfare prevent the gross mistreatment of them in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. In fact, the failure of contemporary Islamists to appreciate the strategic and tactical choices that contributed to the military successes of the early Caliphate underscores both their intellectual bankruptcy and lack of strategic acumen. And it may very well contribute to the failure of their grotesque enterprise.

A post-script is also in order for the author, Akram, who was superseded as Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff by Zia-ul-Haq, a future president of Pakistan following a military coup. According to Stephen P. Cohen, author of a classic 1984 book on the Pakistan Army, Akram – in Cohen’s words, an “ideologue of the highest type, and a gentleman” – played an influential role in shaping Zia’s Islamist outlook. The after-effects of this are still being felt today in Pakistan and its neighboring countries. It is a cautionary tale. Misappropriating history, it turns out, can sometimes be as dangerous – if not more so – than being completely ignorant of it.


Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington DC.


Photo credit: edward musiak