Jihad and the Limitations of Caravan Logistics
A military history of Islam
According to many biographies of the prophet, the superb order and discipline of Muhammad’s followers attracted a fair number of converts. Muhammad “only needed to move a hand and everything that he desired was carried out,” Swedish historian Tor Andrae wrote. “A religion which can drive men so far is an extraordinary religion,” remarked one man so impressed by the unquestioning obedience of Muslim warriors that he converted that same day. Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, an uncle of the prophet and a noted veteran of the Fijar Wars, converted after observing the Muslim community in Mecca. Emigrating to Medina with the prophet, Hamza led the first attempted raid against the Qurayshi caravans, fought in the vanguard at the Battle of Badr, and died at the Battle of Uhud, foremost among martyrs, the '“Lion of Islam.”
Muhammad’s leadership had a similar affect even on many of his enemies. The old pagan religion of the Arabs was now little more than anemic ritual and nomadic folkways that were inadequate for the bustling cities of the Hejaz. His new religion was vigorous and vital. No one could fail to see the contrast. Historian W. Montgomery Watt notes “one at least of the pagans who came to arrange for the ransom of prisoners after the Battle of Badr was so impressed by some of the things he saw in Medina that he became a Muslim, though previously he had been plotting to kill Muhammad.”
Tradition holds that the prophet witnessed the Fijar Wars as a young man, though he is not accounted participating in close combat. This is hardly disqualifying for later wartime leadership. On the contrary, Muhammad managed caravans for most of his life and there is no reason to think he was not part of the logistical train during this earlier tribal conflict. Decades later, the prophet marched his men around Yathrib for exercise, teaching them the suras of the Qur’an, managing the march with the efficient mobilization skills of an experienced caravaner.
In terms of planning and preparation, supporting an army in the desert is indistinguishable from the organization and management needed to lead a caravan. All the same ratios and hard realities come into play.
There is some dispute whether Muhammad was really illiterate, but we cannot doubt that he must have been very good at math. Caravans require tents and carpets and cooking fuel and water and food, all of which reduce the value of goods they can carry, leaving little room for riders. A laden camel requires human supervision, so the humans must walk alongside them for however-many hundreds or thousands of miles the journey lasts. No leg of a journey through waste country — that is, land without food or water — can be longer than four days of walking, and for safety’s sake no leg of the journey should be longer than two days. One camel can only carry enough food and water to support six people for six days. Camels also require daily feeding, and although they can go longer without a drink than horses, they drink and eat more than horses because they are larger animals. Out of this complex calculus we get a ratio of one driver to every three pack animals and one pack animal to every three walkers, a rule of thumb going back to the first days of the silk road in antiquity.
Add horses into the force mix of an army, however, and logistics get more complicated than a simple caravan. With limited pasturage in the Hejaz, horses were necessarily more expensive than camels, requiring more investment but giving less range of action in a desert environment. Cavalry is always more expensive than infantry; the rider commands a higher price than a foot soldier, while the horse makes higher logistical demands than a human. Surprisingly, an all-infantry force can outmarch a cavalry force over five days because it eats less food and needs less maintenance time.
Muhammad began with a company-sized element composed of fellow Meccan emigrants and some new Medinan allies. From the beginning, this infantry force was light and fast. Within a decade, he was able to build a logistical train sufficient for cavalry and even siege artillery. His military career follows a revolutionary arc from fleet guerilla fighter to conventional warlord.
As Watt notes, Muhammad had more immediate problems than his long-term rival, Mecca. For example, an early expedition “against Kurz al-Fihri illustrates the dangers against which he had to be constantly on guard; it was an attempt to punish a freebooter of the neighboring region for stealing some of the Medinan pasturing camels.” Securing Medina against these depredations is exactly the sort of task we find leaders doing in state formation episodes. References to various blood debts and blood prices being paid throughout Watt’s volume also underline the importance of leaders in the process of ending those feuds, carving out space for a peaceful society, also known as civilization.
Muhammad did not want to repeat the experience of the Fijar Wars, which saw more shouting than fighting and led to no significant changes. Instead, he sought decisive battle on his own terms. However, the martial culture of the Arabs was still closer to the endemic or ceremonial styles of pre-state, pre-literate warfare found in tribal societies worldwide. Thus, Muhammad’s military career encompasses all four levels of conflict identified in the literature on pre-state and proto-state warfare: blood feud, set-piece battles, raid and ambush, siege and conquest. He did it all with an eye to establishing an Arab state.
At first, Muhammad used his small force of loyalists to threaten the north-south caravan route west of Medina. Unable to completely close off the 80 miles between Medina and the Red Sea shore, Muhammad must have developed excellent intelligence among the nomads of the region in order to pull off the raid at Nakhlah. Just one Meccan guard was killed, but the invocation of blood price forced the prophet’s natal city to confront Muhammad. Early Islamic biographer Ibn Ishaq has the prophet telling Abdullah bin Jaish, who led the raid, to release anyone who was unwilling to do violence during the pagan holy month of Rahib, when taking life was forbidden. Viewed cynically, we might see this as a disturbing episode in which a cultic leader worked up his followers until they committed acts of violence. However, it is not uncommon for chiefs, monarchs, and generals to call on their ‘best warriors’ and ‘crack troops’ for the most dangerous or diabolical missions. Nakhlah was a shakedown mission, to be sure. According to Ibn Ishaq, at least two men “lost their camels” on the way, fell out of the formation, and returned to Medina.
Seizing the caravan also brought Medinans into Muhammad’s army, for now there were spoils on offer. While this boosted his numbers, it also changed the character of his army, which became mostly Medinan. The system of spoils and ransom formed an underlying economy of security in the desert; manipulating these was a key element of Arab statecraft. From the moment his men returned, redistribution of those spoils became a centralizing exercise of power. “Muhammad at first kept the booty undistributed and did not accept the fifth they offered him,” Watt relates.
Nor did Muhammad even acknowledge responsibility until he had drawn a response from Mecca. “But eventually a revelation justified their action. A Meccan deputation came to Medina to arrange for the ransom of the prisoners, and Muhammad agreed to do this for 1,600 dirhams apiece...” He would continue making such arrangements, developing a reputation for generosity in his dealings. Generosity created obligation, incurring loyalty — a temporal victory over hearts and minds that was to be made permanent by the Qur’an.
During the two battles that followed, Muhammad used the logistical limitations of Arabian armies to his advantage and brought the enemy to battle on advantageous ground both times. The first battle was a clear victory and the second an indecisive defeat. The second battle at Uhud could have been a disaster under less advantageous conditions. Muhammad had been conservative, so he was able to recover the situation while the Meccans were forced to withdraw, as they were unable to supply themselves for another day in the field.
Logistics also played the decisive role in the Battle of the Trench, which we might more properly call the Siege of Yathrib. Unable to mount an assault on prepared defenders, or encircle Muhammad closely, or feed their horses off the land (for the Medinans had harvested their grain early), the Meccan coalition disintegrated after two weeks. Casualties were minimal, for no real fighting ever took place and Mecca had no siege train to attack fortifications. Muhammad reputedly took the advice of a Persian to dig a trench and earthen wall around his community, which constructed the novel earthworks with their usual speed and discipline. This was a novel way of war to Arabs.
City walls appear in archaeology well before writing because the apparatus needed to conduct a siege is more complex and expensive than the supply train and equipment needed for an army in the field. The appearance of siegecraft and city fortification are thus intimately connected to processes of state formation. Underlining this point, when Muhammad laid siege to al-Taif after the fall of Mecca, he brought advanced siege engines with him. This required organization, finance, and foreign engineer specialists.
Byzantium probably had the most advanced poliorcetic technology on earth at the time, so we can guess what engines might have been included. One obvious choice was the classical Roman ballista, a combination of crossbow and rope torsion catapult that could fire large arrows or small rocks. Another technology — likely Chinese in origin and imported through Persia — was the traction trebuchet. Using the leverage of a raised fulcrum, a crew of people pulls on ropes simultaneously to swing a beam arm and hurl substantial stones.
However, while these weapons were useful for attacking a wall, they were not able to reduce walls by themselves. To impart that much energy into a projectile required at least counterweight trebuchets (invented by the late 11th Century) and definitely iron cannons (first used to notable effect in 1488). Undermining walls is not as easy for amateurs as digging trenches. The Hejaz was not noted as a center of deep mining activity, either, so professionals for hire would have been scarce. There was no easy way to force capitulation at al-Taif other than starving out the resistance. This time, logistics and sheer manpower were not on Muhammad’s side. Moving on rather than risk fouling a camp long enough for disease to break out, he eventually claimed the city by diplomacy.
More notable for real military skill was the armed pilgrimage, or Umrah of Dhu'l-Qada. Advancing undetected through mountain passes to the valley of Hudaibiyyah, just three miles from Mecca, his army made a sudden appearance that panicked the Quraysh. Mecca could not drive him off by force, nor could they deny him the traditional rights that made the city a religious center. Here again, Muhammad turned a pagan tradition on its head, performing the ancient rituals of head-shaving and prayer. Although Mecca withheld recognition of his prophetic claims in their treaty with him, the tribes which had feared to join Muhammad’s pilgrimage before now sided with him against the city after.
A symbolic conquest translated into the collapse of all resistance two years later when he entered Mecca unopposed in a single-day operation advancing from four different directions. Mecca was more of a Sparta-like cluster of villages than a city and had no communal walls to protect it. Resistance to Muhammad as well as his religion ended. Thereafter, he turned the restive energy of the Arabs against the outside world, aiming north towards Syria before his death.
By then, his army had grown to tens of thousands of men supported by thousands of camels and many hundreds of horses. In a little over a decade, military and diplomatic success had made the quasi-bandit into a quasi-king.
We should note some details of the fighting. At Badr, Ibn Sa’d states that 238 residents of Medina fought for Muhammad alongside 86 Meccan emigrants. Although the exact ratio of the two sides is disputed, as some number of supporters had peeled off the Meccan army before the fighting, the enemies of the prophet retained a numerical advantage. What they did not have was control of the battlespace. Muhammad was carefully preparing it to his advantage:
On the night before it Muhammad, aware that Abu Jahl was making for Badr, seized the water-supply there, blocked up all the wells except one round which he stationed his men the* one nearest to Mecca and so forced his opponents, presumably now in need of water, to fight on ground and under conditions of his choosing. Quraysh was not ambushed, but it was apparently placed in a position in which it could not avoid fighting, though the conditions were unfavorable. If the sources can be trusted on points of detail, Quraysh on the evening before the battle learnt that Muhammad was close to them, but not his precise whereabouts. Next morning his presence at the wells took them by surprise. Nevertheless there seems to have been a series of single combats between champions, the normal prelude to Arab set battles. There was also arrow-shooting on both sides, and latterly a general melee, which turned into the flight of Quraysh. (Emphasis mine)
Fighting between champions sounds hokey to us now, but it is and was a real element of endemic warfare. We have textual remnants (Homer, for example) supporting the argument that Mycenaeans, Luwians, and other Mediterranean littoral societies did send champions out to fight, so Arabs were hardly the first or only society to do this. Arguments that such ritual practices limit casualties resonate with the fairly low casualty rates of primitive battles witnessed by anthropologists in modern times. The battles of the Dugum Dani of Papua New Guinea have been photographed and are a good example of this. It should not surprise anyone that Arabs had an etiquette of battle just like everyone else. War is a social event, after all.
A minority of combatants wore mail for close combat on either side, so it also makes sense that missile combat predominated at Badr and Uhud. Mesolithic cave art depicting arrow battles has been found in Europe and North Africa. They are suggestive that a sort of no man’s land can form between two clan or tribal war bands. Courage and valor and sacrifice, as well as their opposites, become personal qualities within this liminal space: one gets just close enough to lash out, or gets just far enough away to escape the enemy strike; the range becomes limited by the choice of spear or arrow. Stepping into the contested zone takes guts. Witnesses will remember it. Even the men in armor will hesitate to enter the sacred space of battle.
When the Meccans broke at Badr, Muhammad wanted to overwhelm and eliminate enemies. Nevertheless, his men were still men, and he found his control slipping at the critical moment when he needed their attention on victory instead of profit. Watt:
In the course of the battle from forty-five to seventy of Quraysh were killed, including Abu Jahl himself and several other leaders. A similar number were taken prisoner. For the Muslims there was much booty, and to prevent the quest for loot from interfering with the pursuit of the enemy, Muhammad had to announce that the booty, apart from the spoils from those killed and the ransoms of those taken prisoner, would be divided equally among those who took part in the battle.
But the terms of spoil division changed again later:
By the time of the expedition against Qaynuqa' in the month after Badr, it had been decreed that a fifth (khums) of all spoils taken on a Muslim expedition was to go to Muhammad.
This was effectively a system of taxation — a key concern for Muhammad, and the essential question of state survival. Armies cost money even if they fight for free. Men engaged in war are unavailable for productive labor to feed themselves or produce wealth that can support their efforts. Most of them will be more interested in potential personal riches than the financial state of the umma. Even pious men are still men. Regular pay is in fact a military invention of states maintaining armies. States with agricultural surplus — Egypt, Sumerian cities, etc — were the first to field professional armies precisely because they had substantial food and tax surpluses to spend. What Americans euphemistically call ‘defense spending’ underlies “the extent to which there was a transition from voluntary contributions to fixed 'alms' during Muhammad's lifetime,” as Watt puts it. Moreover, “it is apparently only in the early Medinan period that the requests for contributions commence.” This narrative arc is a study in war finance.
Now consider the Meccan army at Uhud, which had “3,000 well-equipped men, of whom 700 had coats of mail; there were 3,000 camels and 200 horses,” according to Watt’s reading of Ibn Ishaq. Just one in every four or five of Meccans was armored for close combat. Bear in mind that the camels would have been pack animals and the Meccan army would have moved on foot. To put these numbers in perspective, the horse cavalry element probably cost as much to raise as the rest of the army put together. To field even this small force was an expensive proposition.
For minor police actions, extemporization was fine. “Only after the outbreak of disturbances upon the murder … was a military commander sent, al-Muhajir, and he did not start from Medina with a large army; no men at all are mentioned but he collected his soldiers on the way, first at Mecca and then at-Ta'if, and then by attaching to himself local leaders…” For anything more complicated than a posse, though, Muhammad needed a real army. Watt again:
An interesting measure of Muhammad's growing wealth is the number of horses on his expeditions; at Badr in 624/2 there were over 300 men and only 2 horses; at Badr al-Maw'id in 626/4 there were 1,500 men and 10 horses; at Khaybar in 628/7 there was about the same number of men, but 200 horses; at Hunayn in 630/8 700 Emigrants alone had 300 horses, and 4,000 Ansar had another 500; finally on the great expedition of Tabuk in 630/9 there are said to have been 30,000 men and 10,000 horses.
It is worth noting that Tabuk was the furthest that Muhammad had to go from a base of supply, so it required the largest logistical train. Again, a maximum ratio of three men to one animal is just about right for an infantry force. Even with a cavalry arm, the main body of this army still moved on foot, using animals for logistics, reconnaissance, and messaging.
Of course, Tabuk was not a battle at all, but Muhammad’s response to rumors of a Byzantine invasion, or perhaps a show of force under the pretext of foreign attack. He certainly seems to have been recruiting the Arab tribes in this area, which straddled the trade route to Damascus. Nevertheless, the adoption of a significant cavalry capability marked Muhammad’s ambition to form an Arab state that could square off against all the foreign empires that had threatened the Hejaz before.
Unity of command and morale was the essential problem for any Arab leader at the time. What political science calls “the monopoly of violence” was the purpose of Muhammad’s veto over “warlike expeditions” in the Constitution of Medina. Indiscipline at the battle of Uhud, when archers reportedly left high ground to pursue Meccans feigning a retreat, brought the matter to a head. “The words 'obey God and His messenger' and various equivalents occur about forty times in the Qur'an, and are to be dated mostly in the months before and after the battle of Uhud,” Watt writes. For a historian, the chief question about historicity of the Constitution of Medina is whether it was promulgated before or after the Battle of Badr. It certainly served as “a source for the ideas underlying the Islamic state in the early formative years,” Watt says. Yet no text fragment can testify to Muhammad’s success better than his military endeavors. He commanded the faithful completely. Faith was his sword, but leadership and logistics were his decisive military qualities.