In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Arab Conquests

“The Great Arab Conquests:
How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In”
Hugh Kennedy, 2007, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia PA

Arab conquests during the period 630 AD to 750 AD resulted in their control a large part of the known world. In 712 AD at the battle of Poitiers, the Arabs reached the gates of Paris before being driven back. This remarkable series of victories were accomplished with relatively small armies (none was larger than 30,000 men) who rode bareback and were lightly armored. They depended upon spear, sword and shield, the element of surprise, and the weakened conditions of the nations they faced. The Arab conquests were quick and world ranging like those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The difference was in how the Arab conquests were “made permanent.” Only two countries ever came back to their previous identify after Arab conquest: Spain and Portugal. This book attempts to understand this subject by addressing two questions: (1) how did the conquests take place; and (2) how were the conquered areas settled by a relatively small number of Arabs and become transformed into “Arab” states.

The author discusses the origin of a unified Arab state under the Prophet Mohammed to describe the development of a conquest strategy based primarily on the Koran but also on the Bedouin and Arab urban culture with its tribal relationships and social systems that valued military might and cohesiveness of the tribal group. The key aspect of Islam that transformed the tribes of Arabia into a potent military and governance forces was the creation of a “brotherhood” of Muslims under Islam. Any person who professed a belief in Allah become a brother regardless of ethnicity, race or nationality. This brotherhood was known as “umma” or the Muslim community. Tribal conflict and in-fighting was overcome with this new brotherhood.

Islam also provided the basic strategic framework for all the conquests. Upon the death of Mohammed, the different tribes of Arabia began to assert their independence. A series of wars, the “ridda” wars, brought all the tribes under Muslim control led by the Quraysh tribe of Mecca allied with Bedouin. 1 According to Kennedy, these wars led directly to the expansion of Arabia since the umma formed by Islam would not allow “brother” to attack “brother.” The unified Arabian tribes under Islam had to take their traditional raiding way of life outside Arabia to neighboring countries. The Koran also sanctioned this in verse 9:5: “When the sacred months are past, kill the idolators wherever you find them, seize them, besiege them, lie in wait for them in every place of ambush; but if they repent, pray regularly and give the alms tax, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and merciful.” This was considered the scriptural mandate for conquests.

As Muslim armies were dispatched to conquering neighboring states, more and more Bedouin arrived in Mecca to join the armies to share in spiritual and worldly rewards of conquest. The Arab armies were relatively small. Syria was conquered by an army of less than 30,000 men, while Iraq was won with only 6,000 to 12,000 men. At the crucial battles of Yarmuk in Syria against Roman forces and Qadisiya in Iraq against the Persians (Sasanians). The apparent advantages of the Muslim armies was mobility (they traveled light and lived off the land), good leadership, and strong motivation (for spoils of war but also spiritual – as witnessed in a Muslim speech to Persian authorities prior to battle, “… now we have come to you by order of our Lord, fighting for his sake … we act upon his orders and seek fulfillment of his promise.”). The author makes a strong case that internal strife and ongoing conflicts between the Byzantine Empire and Persia weakened both empires and allowed Muslim armies an opportunity to attack them.2

In explaining how Muslim rulers governed the conquered lands, the author describes the administrative arrangements made that allowed Muslims to maintain their cultural identity and through Islam convert the local population to a common religious belief as well as language. Apparently key cities were chosen for settlement by Muslims and from these cities an administrative system was established to collect tribute owed by non-Muslims. Incentives were created to convert to Islam but there is no major evidence of forced conversion. The systems put in place were effective in that only Spain and Portugal are the only two countries to revert back to Christianity after Muslim rule.

1) Ridda refers to apostasy and originated in the changing beliefs after Mohammend’s death. At least two other prophets arose in Arabia: (1) Maslama of the Banu Hanifa of Yamama in Eastern Arabia; and (2) Sajah, a prophetess of tribes in north-east Arabia.

2) Byzantine Christian doctrine was different than those of many Christians in Syria (Diophysites vs Monophysites) and there was persecution of the local Christians. Muslim arrival at this critical time found a weakened empire. Bubonic plague was also a serious problem for the city dwelling Syrian population – a disease passed by fleas on rats was more of a problem in the cities than with the Bedouin warriors and their mobile camps (not room or place for rats).

Extend of Muslim Conquests – 750 AD

Friday, May 8, 2009

Leviathan - A Hobbesian View of the World

An article in Parameters, Winter 2006-07, pp. 4-13, entitled "The Hobbesian Notion of Self-Perservation Concerning Human Behavior during an Insurgency" posits that gaining control over the population and providing for its security is a key first step in winning an insurgency. Using Thomas Hobbes' classic, Leviathan, the article points out that an individual initially seeks membership in the society for security. Only after the need for security is met does a person pursue a more complete life. This gets complicated in that man's perception of his security is a determining factor of whether he joins an insurgency or not.

English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, wrote Leviathan in 1651 regarding human nature and the foundation of states based on social contract theories. Hobbes describes the need for a strong central authority to prevent social unrest and civil strife because the common nature of man presents a situation in which each person fights for his or her own existence. Preventing chaos caused by man's inherent nature to seek his own will without limit and the situation that arises from that nature -- an unending conflict of "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes) -- is a primary motivating force for man to accept a form of social contract and establish civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a central authority to whom all individuals give up their natural rights for the sake of protection. Submission to this authority is accepted as the price of peace however excessive abuse of power can lead to civil war.

The Hobbesian view of the world, that security of the individual is the primary motivation to the acceptance of authority, is contrary to Aristole's contention that man is by nature a social animal. While social needs may play a part in the formation of society, Hobbes believes the overwhelming need is for security -- everything else, social interaction, economic development, justice, spiritual fulfillment, etc. follows. Failure to secure the population dooms any counter-insurgency effort.

"The Hobbesian Notion of Self-Preservation Concerning Human Behavor during an Insurgency" tries to answer the question of why some people join an insurgency and others don't. The key is the perception of the population as to who is in control. Most people will choose to be impartial as the struggle between government and insurgency fight for control but the overriding factor determining their eventual loyalty is Hobbesian self preservation. Perceived loss of control of an area by the central government is sufficient for the population to be passive in the face of the insurgency and for a portion of the population to join the insurgency. The majority of the population is waiting to see which form of society will prevail in order to enter new social contracts that ensure their survival.

This approach reinforces a key tenant of General David Petraeus's counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan that the population must be protected at all costs.