September 11, 2014

Warfare in the Early Caliphate: Revisiting A.I. Akram's "The Sword of Allah"

The following article originally appeared on the War on the Rocks blog on September 11, 2014. An excerpt is reproduced below and the full text can be accessed here.
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 of more contemporary sociological and political 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 renewed interest 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.