Muslim Doctrine of Warfare: Beyond Just War Theory

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One of the most controversial issues these days related to Islam is that of war and violence, i.e. does Islam as a religion promote violence, are Muslims inherently or especially violent, and is it legitimate for Muslims to have waged war in the past to spread their religion (although more sophisticated critics these days have recognized that there weren’t forced conversions).

This debate has produced a lot of literature, and people have responded to the issues in various ways. The main focus has been on the why: for what reasons did Muslims wage war, what motivated them, and what role did wanting to spread or glorify Islam play – as opposed to responding to aggression, defending the oppressed, and so on.

But there’s been much less focus on the how. Clearly, the Prophet (SAW) and his Companions achieved tremendous military success. They took down the Persian Empire and much of the Byzantine Empire, the great powers of their age. It’s worth asking: what was their military strategy? How did they manage to march against enemies much stronger than them and still win? These people were not trained in fancy military academies and did not have experience fighting against great powers. Ultimately, even on the battlefield, they looked to their religion for guidance and inspiration.

In this post, I’ll look at 3 different primary sources that hold theological weight for Muslims: the Quran, the ahadith (sayings) of the Prophet, and the actions of the Companions, especially the rightly-guided Caliphs. From these, I’ll draw some broad principles for how Muslims should wage war. I’ll also give examples from history, both Islamic and general, of these principles being used or ignored and how it led to victory or defeat.

Preparation vs Blind Faith

Many Muslims answered the question of how the early Muslims won by saying, “it was simply God’s will,” or, “God favored them due to their piety.” This can be true theologically, but it doesn’t fully answer the question, because while Allah’s will is indeed paramount, He has created this world with cause-and-effect. Anyone who wants military victory must prepare for it via material causes.

The Companions did not just fling themselves at the enemy lines and say God’s name and hope that would be enough. Remembering Allah and relying on Him were necessary, but not sufficient. They also made the proper preparations for war, they readied supply lines, they sized up enemy formations, and they deliberately planned their movements. As the famous ayah says: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power…” (Anfal 60). This was understood and applied by the Prophet, the Companions, and many other successful military campaigns in history.

Examples where this was followed:

  • The Battle of Khandaq, where the Prophet (SAW) and Companions dug a trench to prepare for the enemy attack. They were helped by the weather in the end too (by Allah’s command), but they wouldn’t have gotten to that stage if they hadn’t made the proper preparations, cause the enemy army would have strolled into Madinah.
  • The Conquest of Constantinople, where Sultan Mehmed Fatih brought with him a huge army, miners and sappers, cannons of unprecedented size, engineers to build siege towers, and a large flotilla.
  • WW2, where the Soviets moved their industries behind the Ural mountains so that they could continue churning out tanks, planes, shells, guns, etc beyond the range of the German air force. Ultimately the Soviet industrial advantage decided the fate of the war, even though the Germans were better at battlefield maneuvers.
  • The Turkish drone program and the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. These are both examples of Muslim countries beefing up their arsenals in order to protect themselves from attack, and to safeguard their national interests and agendas.

Examples where this was neglected:

  • The Ottoman entrance into WW1. Already exhausted by years of war in Libya and the Balkans, and internal instability via several coups, they weren’t ready at all for another war, let alone against 3 great powers. The rulers of the empire at the time (mainly the Three Pashas) were acting on an irrational blind faith – not in God per se but in their own abilities, influenced somewhat by social darwinism and the idea that the mighty Turks would inevitably prevail.
  • “Muslim” terrorist groups. By terrorist groups I mean ones that target civilians in the countries they’re at war with. They have this idea that they’re engaged in a war of “the weak against the strong” which is how they justify their attacks. The moral considerations of that are horrific, but even if we were to ignore the moral aspect, these people have no sense of how their actions will actually lead to some kind of victory beyond quoting the ayaat that promise victory to the Muslims. In fact, the evidence shows that terrorist attacks result in a greater resolve and desire for war in the country targeted!

Choosing the Right Time and Place

When you attack an enemy and have the strategic initiative, you can dictate where the battles will be fought. But even when you’re on the defensive, it’s important to retreat towards terrain where you’ll have a better chance, or even to pull back entirely if you have no chance at all, as long as pulling back won’t cause other issues.

One example of this is how the Prophet (SAW) dealt with hostile tribes in and around Madinah. A lot of attention is paid to whether it was legitimate for this tribe or that tribe to be fought, whether the way certain tribes were dealt with was excessive, etc. Muslims also get drawn into these debates. But the bottom line is that those tribes were the Prophet’s enemies and were engaged in a political-cum-military conflict with him. He was dealt a weak hand but managed to navigate that conflict superbly, choosing military force at the right times and right places, and coming out undisputedly on top at the end.

In addition, it’s clear from the Prophet’s teachings that retreating is no shame if the situation calls for it. In the Battle of Mu’tah, the Muslims found themselves severely outmatched by a Byzantine army. Their leaders were killed one after another, and when Khalid bin Walid took command, he ordered a retreat. When the Muslim soldiers returned to Madinah, some people labeled them as al-farrarun, or “the ones who flee.” The Prophet (SAW) heard this and said, “rather they are al-karrarun,” meaning “the ones who will repeat,” and he praised Khalid for his actions.

Other examples where this was followed:

  • The Battle of Yarmouk. The Muslim army had already reached Northern Syria. The hilly terrain here would neutralize the Byzantine manpower advantage by providing cover, but it wasn’t well-suited for the cavalry, the Muslims’ best troops. They retreated south towards flat terrain near Homs, which would be good for cavalry, but the Byzantine numerical advantage would be a bigger factor. The location ultimately chosen (in Southern Syria) was perfect: it had plains well-suited for cavalry, and was peppered with valleys and ravines and the occasional hill, which enabled concealment and positioning. Overall, they retreated hundreds of kilometers in order to find a battlefield that was suitable.
  • The Russian defense against Napoleon’s invasion. They knew they didn’t have to defend every inch of their vast territory. They could simply keep retreating until eventually the winter would force Napoleon to leave, which it did. Thus, Napoleon lost the war even though he had managed to capture Moscow and huge swaths of Russian land.

Examples where this was neglected:

  • The Ottoman entrance into WW1, which was also mentioned above.
  • Pearl Harbor. Unlike the UK which was far away, the US was an industrial powerhouse that had a long Pacific coastline, so Japan’s decision to draw the US into the war was a costly blunder. Perhaps the US would have entered later anyway, but this would have happened after Japan had already conquered all British colonies in the Far East, so the timing would have been better for Japan.
  • The 2016 Aleppo battles of the Syrian war. Once the regime had the rebel-held half of the city surrounded, it should have been clear that any attempt to break the siege would result in a pyrrhic victory at best, because the regime and its backers Russia and Iran could concentrate their superior firepower on the corridor and turn it into a turkey shoot.

Troop Quality Matters

It’s not simply a question of having more soldiers than your enemy. Your soldiers need to be prepared, disciplined, and committed. Sometimes, it’s better to leave certain people behind rather than having them come along but cause damage. As the Quran says about a group of Hypocrites during the time of the Prophet: “Had they gone forth with you, they would not have increased you except in confusion…” (Tawbah 47).

In addition, we have the story of David and Goliath:

And when Saul went forth with the soldiers, he said, “Indeed, Allah will be testing you with a river. So whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand.” But they drank from it, except a [very] few of them. Then when he had crossed it along with those who believed with him, they said, “There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.” But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, “How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.” (Baqarah 249)

The soldiers who didn’t obey the command were left behind, even though they were already outnumbered by the enemy. This is because Talut (Saul) needed disciplined troops who were highly committed to the cause.

There’s also the idea that beyond a certain point, numbers don’t matter anymore. As a hadith says: “12,000 won’t be defeated due to lack of numbers” (Abu Dawoud and Tirmidhi). I’m not sure if the 12,000 number is literal or figurative, but either way, it shows that once you have critical mass, the reasons for your defeat would be something else other than the enemy having a bigger army.

Other examples where this was followed:

  • The Janissaries, who had a decisive role in numerous Ottoman battles. Their numbers weren’t that high, but these were dependable, well-trained, elite troops who were deeply loyal to the Sultan and the Empire. The Janissaries were the first standing army in Europe. They weren’t peasants who would grab a sword and join in for some spoils whenever a war broke out, they were professionals whose job it was to be a soldier, year-round. This was something which hadn’t been seen before.
  • The “inghimasis” of the Syrian war. These were usually jihadists, often foreign fighters, who had previous fighting experience and would rush into battle with no fear of death. They would be the ones who would attack the enemy strong points while the largely Syrian infantry focused on providing artillery support and anti-tank teams, along with attacking the flanks and securing newly captured terrain. On the flip side, the inghimasis had an extremely high casualty rate.

Examples where this was neglected:

  • Anti-colonial battles – there are many of these, but the British colonization of India comes to mind, which often saw large local forces against much smaller British ones, such as in Plassey and Buxar. In fact, the British managed to colonize all of India, a land of 100 million souls at the time, with just a few 1000 Brits (they did recruit local sepoys of course). One major factor was that in a lot of the battles, many of the Indian troops were low-quality and just there for plunder or because their feudal lord brought them.
  • The Kargil War. The soldiers used by Pakistan in Kargil, mostly light infantry, were ill-suited to the operation. If it was meant to be a raid into Indian territory followed by a quick withdrawal, then it would make sense. But they tried to hold their ground and it turned into a combined-arms conflict with heavy artillery and air support playing a role, so they were simply out-matched.

Deception and Intelligence

As the hadith says:

Ka’b ibn Malik reported: When the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, intended to set out on a military expedition, he would pretend to go somewhere else. The Prophet would say, “War is deception.” (Sunan Abu Dawoud)

Knowing about your enemy’s movements and plans is important, and an obvious corollary is that deceiving your enemy about yourself is equally important, to deny him that knowledge. Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

During the Prophet’s time, they were also helped by Divine intervention that helped establish this. Before the Battle of Badr, the Muslims were made to appear small to the Quraysh, to increase them in over-confidence, and the Quraysh were made to appear small to the Muslims, to alleviate their fear.

Other examples where this was followed:

  • During the Conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans knew where the city walls were weak (in the Golden Horn behind the chain), so at night they rolled their boats over land to get around the chain and be able to attack where the enemy was weakest.
  • In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Egyptian army managed to achieve surprise in their crossing of the Suez Canal. Israeli intelligence was pretty good, but they were still deceived into thinking the Egyptians were merely conducting exercises in the area. As a result, this front was the only one in that war where the Arabs saw some success.
  • Insurgencies, which by definition require deception to succeed. The green-on-blue attacks of the Afghan war are one example of infiltration operations that had a huge psychological impact on the enemy.

Examples where this was neglected:

  • The Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. General Robert E. Lee’s cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart lost contact with the main Confederate army while on a reconnaissance mission, which deprived Lee of intelligence and resulted in the Union army pinning him down at Gettysburg. In fact, some have claimed this was the pivotal element of the entire battle.
  • In WW2, the Allies utterly dominated Germany in the intelligence war. For whatever reason, Nazi Germany didn’t prioritize intelligence and counter-intelligence that much. Perhaps it’s because they thought they would win anyway – like when Poland did excellent intelligence and espionage work (for example, cracking the Enigma machine), but that didn’t stop Poland from folding within weeks of the invasion. However, the intelligence mismatch did make a difference to the war as a whole, and was arguably one of the most decisive factors.

Morale and the Will to Fight

The Prophet (SAW) said: “Do not wish to meet the enemy, but when you meet them, be patient” (Bukhari). The will to fight does not mean a desire for bloodshed or a lust for killing, rather it means being patient and steadfast if and when the war does break out.

Allah says: “And how many a prophet [fought and] with him fought many religious scholars. But they never lost assurance due to what afflicted them in the cause of Allah, nor did they weaken or submit. And Allah loves the steadfast” (Aal Imran 146).

Examples where this was followed:

  • The Battle of Yamamah in the Wars of Apostasy. The Muslims had been beaten pretty badly and even pushed off the battlefield according to some reports. But they managed to rally, regroup and turn the battle around 180 degrees. No reinforcements or fresh supplies arrived, it was purely based on morale.
  • Vietnam, where the Viet Cong showed an extraordinary willingness to fight and die for their cause in the terrible jungle conditions. The fact that they just kept fighting and refusing to back down, and even launching large operations such as the Tet Offensive, ultimately broke the US soldiers’ morale and the US lost the war.
  • The Idlib campaign of 2019-2020 – the rebel side held out for 10 months, losing about 1/3 of their territory, until finally Turkey had to intervene and prevent them from losing totally. Compare this to how Kuwait folded in 2 days, Kirkuk was lost within 24 hours, and Afrin fell to Turkey in 7 weeks despite years of preparation by YPG and favorable terrain. The rebels in Idlib were fighting with very rudimentary equipment, and the terrain was mostly flat, so them holding out that long can mostly be ascribed to their morale and will to fight.

Examples where this was neglected:

  • Germany’s allies in WW2, such as the Italians, Hungarians and Romanians. Even when you control for their poor equipment and short supplies, it’s clear Germany’s allies didn’t perform well. This boils down to a contradiction in the heart of Germany’s overall strategy: going to war against the great powers, they needed allies. But since their war was about expanding the “lebensraum” for the Germans and killing, expelling or enslaving the “inferior” races, it was clear that the non-Germans would not be very motivated to fight on Germany’s behalf.
  • The fall of Kirkuk, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, the Kurdish Peshmerga were used to the comfort of fighting with foreign support, especially US airstrikes. When the US declared its neutrality, they lacked the will to defend the city from PMU.

Achieve Peace Through Strength

As noted by many, Muslims should not desire war. But the best way to achieve peace is not through pacifism, but rather through strength, whereby your opponent will willingly agree to your demands.

Consider the story of Suleiman (AS) and the Queen of Saba. Suleiman had an army which was much stronger and could have defeated hers if they went to war. At one point he said: “Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased” (Naml 37).

But before going to battle, he showed off his God-given strength and power to her, by having one of his servants seize her throne, and by showing her his palace with its beautiful glass floor that looked like a pond of water. She was awed by this and recognized that it was miraculous, and she believed in Allah. If Suleiman (AS) wanted to, he could have achieved the same result by going to war as well, but he chose to achieve peace through strength.

Other examples where this was followed:

  • Much of the early Islamic conquests. Not every territory that entered Dar al-Islam did so through bloody battles. In some cases, such as Jerusalem, the local leaders surrendered after having seen the strength of the Muslims. They were given the right to stay and practice their religion, a relatively light tax was imposed, and overall much bloodshed was avoided.
  • Much of US policy post-WW2 is centered around this. Things like naval patrols in the Pacific, which are meant to keep the peace by reminding everyone that the US is the real boss in town and no one should step out of line.

Conclusion

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We should hate war and wish that is never comes about, but war has always been a part of human history, and will continue to be until our time in this world comes to an end. When the next war does break out, the winner will be decided by God’s will of course, but that will happen through asbaab (material causes) that are worth paying attention to.

One thought on “Muslim Doctrine of Warfare: Beyond Just War Theory

  1. I found this a well thought out post, I have two points of contention, you talk about idlib (province holding out for “10 months”, If I recall correctly, Lataminah, morek, kafr zita, maaraat al-numan, saraqib and the whole adana plains feel largely without a fight, and indeed had no urban warfare whatsoever, same with qalaat al mudiq.

    I think you should add something about the syrian rebels lack of fighting spirit, for example in Daraa or even in Aleppo (given in exchange for Al-Bab) and how they clearly show that the rebels have no will to fight and instead look out for their own personal interests and well being, another example being how Ghouta regularly ceasefired with the regime which allowed the regime to focus on zabadani/madaya.

    Idlib has probably spent more time under ceasefire than at war.

    The second point and linking in the point you made regarding numrical superiority, try adding this hadith

    ” The people will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their dish. Someone asked: Will that be because of our small numbers at that time? He replied: No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be scum and rubbish like that carried down by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the breasts of your enemy and last enervation (love of the world) into your hearts.”

    Overall, good post.

    Like

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