The Prophet Muhammad Taught Us How to fight

At the end of October I  in Arlington VA, will be presenting  a paper at the ASMEA conference paper with the title  as above. It is basically about the   similarities  in operational tactics and strategy similarities of the  ISIS to those of  the medieval Arab warriors during  the early Islamic expansion. In terms of  tactics,  combat ethos, and  use of psychological warfare,  the study of the early islamic expansion is like a primer for the ISIS way of war. Most striking is the commitment of the Prophet Mohammad to a “total war” concept which is the fundamental tenet of the ISIS way of war.

Below is an  excerpt of the paper.

Psychological Warfare

The Arab way of war has always been characterized by the effective use of psychological warfare. Ibn Khaldun mentions it often in his history.

Victory in war is the result of imaginary psychological factors. Numbers, weapons, and the proper tactics may guarantee (victory), However as has been mentioned above, (all these things) are less effective than the factors above mentioned. {Here ibn Khaldun is referring to spreading dissension, disunity, and a feeling of hopelessness among the enemy. Author’s note}. Trickery is one of the most useful things employed in warfare. It is the thing most likely to bring victory

Among Arab tribes, even of the pre-Islamic era, a crude type of psychological warfare was always used. It has also been a characteristic of Arab desert warfare through the ages. T. E. Lawrence termed it as the Arab ability to “win wars without battles.”  But it was never used as effectively as under the leadership of the Prophet and his commanders. In his use of propaganda, the Prophet used ridicule, the threat of total war, and a dramatic carrot and stick policy toward his enemies. As Richard Gabriel wrote;

He also introduced the new dimension of psychological warfare, and even employing terror and even massacre as a means to weaken the will of his enemies.

The essential ingredient of this was always the instilling of fear into the hearts of the enemy. It should also be made clear that the carrot and stick approach was probably a means to preserve life as the Arab army under the Prophet acted with benevolence generally when cities or tribes surrendered and asked forgiveness, but could be expected to be dealt with in a merciless fashion if they refused to surrender.

Seen in this light the widespread use of terror and fear by the ISIS has definite strategic and operational objectives, despite the seemingly gratuitous violence and butchery appearing in their videos. But as mentioned earlier, these videos attract rather than repel potential recruits, and strike fear into the hearts of enemies or reluctant allies.

Certainly this fear has played a major role in the repeated collapse of Iraqi army units in critical battles. An army that is ill disciplined, poorly led, poorly motivated, has little confidence in themselves or their leadership will fall apart against a determined and reputedly ferocious foe. This describes the Iraqi army. It has never been a truly professional army and is even less so now. Like the situation of the early Arab conquests, the ISIS spread through Syria and Iraq  because of the disunity and precariousness of the ruling powers.   The early Arab conquests took advantage of the long era of Persian -Byzantine wars, the effects of plague, and the declining power of both the empires.  It is instructive to note that the early Arab Islamic victories occurred in a Middle Eastern world politically similar to the one inherited by the ISIS. Therefore the effect of ISIS propaganda has found fertile ground to influence a very vulnerable population, just as it did in the era of Islamic expansion.

Islamist propaganda has been particularly effective and is probably its greatest recruiting sources, albeit the propaganda would be of little value without its alleged military prowess. Nevertheless an essential ingredient has been the effectiveness of their propaganda programs.

ISIS Strategy

In accordance with the concept elucidated by S. K. Malik early Islamic strategy consisted of what we would term a “total war” concept, one in which every element of human endeavor is employed. As he wrote Jihad is more than just strategy. It is in fact “grand strategy,” carefully delineating the difference between military strategy and grand strategy, His philosophy defines a modern day version of the Islamic world eternal struggle against the house of war (the non-Islamic world). He defines it in terms of Jihad.

Jehad (sic) is a continuous and never-ending struggle waged on all fronts including political, economic, social, psychological, domestic, moral, and spiritual to attain the objective of policy.

Military strategy is the application of the total grand strategy. An essential ingredient of the grand strategy reiterated many times in Malik’s treatise is the infliction of terror into the hearts of the enemy. By way of additional definition Malik refers to grand strategy as the attainment of power while military strategy is specifically the use of force.

Here again Malik has drawn a picture which is more than theory but rather drawn from the lessons of the early Islamic conquests. As Russ Rogers wrote:

By demanding total surrender to the ways of Islam Muhammad stressed an aspect of warfare that pushed others beyond their current understanding. To the Arab tribes, warfare was about sport and play, a pastime to break the boredom and monotony of desert life in which men could show courage and honor.

Kennedy wrote that the defining passage for the Arab conquests were contained in the verse surah 9:5

Then as the sacred months have passed (in which a truce had been in force between the Muslims and their enemies; note from Kennedy} slay the idolaters wherever you find them, seize then, besiege them, lie in wait for every place of ambush; but if they repent, pray regularly, and give alms tax, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving, merciful.

Richard Gabriel termed this total war this way:

Once war was harnessed to strategic objectives, it became possible to expand its application to introduce tactical dimensions that were completely new to traditional Arab warfare. Muhammad uses his armies in completely new ways: He attacked tribes, towns, and garrisons before they could form hostile coalitions: he isolated his enemy 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. He laid siege to cities and towns. Muhammad also introduced the new dimension of psychological warfare, employing terror and even massacres as means to weaken the will of his enemies.

Bernard Lewis termed it in this way:

The Muslim Jihad, in contrast, was perceived as unlimited, as a religious obligation that would continue until the entire world has adopted the Muslim faith or submitted to Muslim Ruler.

While Alfred Guillaume found the idea of Jihad being a threat to the West fanciful. “A moment’s reflection is sufficient to show that a Jihad against the Western power or powers is impossible.” However as the bewildering (to the Western mind) story of the ISIS continues, analysis of ISIS based on Western concepts is a fruitless endeavor.  Nothing less than the abject surrender of the enemy  and permanent occupation of his lands was acceptable to the armies of the prophet.

In many of the modern “politically correct” versions of the conquests, Jihad is given short shrift or described in hagiographic terms.  According to Karen Armstrong, the wars of Muhammad were forced on him by the “bloodbath of the 7th century,” compared to the world at the time of Jesus in which “all the world was at peace.”  The older, and often sympathetic treatment on the background of Islamic origins, without the strained efforts of modern writers to counter what they consider to be some sort of Islamophobia, are much more instructive, not to mention far better in clarity and readability

Understanding the ISIS involves a extensive background study of Islam, and unless one is a fulltime historian capable of reading ancient Islamic texts in Arabic (and understanding them) one has to depend on the historians of Islam writing in English. The problem here is that the more recent histories and works on Islam have been unduly influenced by the Edward Said school of Middle East Studies. The baleful influence of Edward Said has become only more pernicious since Dr. Malcolm Kerr’s penetrating dissection of Said’s predisposition to confuse racism with anything he disagreed with. This finds its way into the discussion on the Islamic nature of the ISIS. For example, this politically correct and often obtuse argument finds its way into the writings of Professor Juan Cole, unmistakably a disciple of Edward Said, who wrote that every religion has a “center of gravity’ and to be defined as being within that center of gravity has to be within the “normative” tradition.

In summary while “logically” the ISIS may not present an existential threat to the United States or Western Europe, one can be reasonably certain that the flow of recruits to the ISIS are not imagining dying for a small, weak, mini-state constrained by enemies all-around, a Caliphate without resources, existing on a mostly desolate, and sparsely populated desert.. The leadership of the “Islamic State” are no doubt much more pragmatic, but like the early Arab Islamic state, the New Caliphate must expand or perish. Like the early Arab conquerors, the foot soldiers of the ISIS do not see any existing boundaries to the empire they hope to carve out and see no limitations to the methods used to obtain it.

Like wise it has often been defined as simply a Sunni-centric triumphalist movement, which it is to some degree, but it can never be pitched that way to the youth of a dispirited Muslim community pining for the restoration of the multi ethnic Islamic Empire in which many of the recruits are coming from all over the world. As Goldziher wrote,  “For Sunni Islam, the Caliph is there to guarantee the carrying out of Islamic obligations to represent and embody in his person the duties of the Islamic community.”

The Islamic State avowed goals cannot be limited or circumscribed by borders. To do so would quash the dream that brings thousands into its ranks, and millions to sympathize.   The apocalyptic nature of the ISIS is seen in its propagandist’s reference to the final battle of Rome with the unbelievers and their ultimate defeat at Dabiq in Syria  In the mythology of the Islamic State, the Muslim community throughout the world must be brought under the banner of the ISIS, and then at some point the destruction of the house of war ( the non Muslim world) as it has been long proclaimed in doctrine of the early conquests.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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