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.