Sons of the Prophet
On a military history of Islam
Photo: a bust of Ibn Khaldoun.
I will never forget the first time I listened to Osama bin Laden. It was 1996, and I was watching him on VHS in the language center at Fort Hood, Texas. To be completely honest, his Arabic was — and I stress that this is an aesthetic comment, not a theological point — exquisite. Perfect. Flawless. Every sentence was simple, uttered with much more than its own weight in meaning. Like the Qur’an, his ‘witness’ was ancient Arabic poetry, formal and sophisticated and set down by rules as strict as any form of verse in the world, to reveal truths as great as anything humans could imagine, on global scales of infinite time.
It was mesmerizing. It was terrifying. I could see right away that he would be the genesis of 21st Century problems. How could he not be? The sounds coming from his mouth were ancient magic, the kind that lead men straight into hell.
During the years that tradition holds as the era in which Muhammad was born and began his ministry, there was no king in Mecca and no formal state. Instead, an informal oligarchy ran the civic enterprise. Standing at an X-shaped crossroads of trade routes — one in goods from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, the other in ideas from Ethiopia to Syria — Mecca existed in a land of clans, dependent on the goodwill of the nomadic tribes living around it. The city was forever besieged by its neighborhood, forced to distribute its wealth in order to maintain its security.
This social structure also led to countless blood feuds and vendettas, even whole wars, as each clan was expected to defend individual members from aggression; a man killed over a dispute might be avenged back and forth for generations. Mecca was also a fringe scene in the contested border zone of two powerful states, the Byzantines and the Sassanids of Persia. Both sides enlisted mercenaries from Arab lands: Syria, Palestine, the Hejaz. So if Mecca was neutral in the war between superpowers, and not actually at war when Muhammad is said to have had his first vision from the angel Gabriel, it was still a small city in a land that was full of warriors. The mobilization ratio of Bedouin tribes was closer to prehistoric tribes than settled Europeans; said another way, every Arab male was assumed to be a warrior until proven otherwise. That was the world of the prophet.
Ibn Khaldoun (see above photo of a bust), an Arab historian of the 14th Century maghreb (North Africa), was out of favor when he wrote his masterwork on history, Al Muqaddama. Deploring the “vicious cycle of usurpations and depositions” that characterized the tumultuous politics of the region, Ibn Khaldoun lived in circumstances quite similar to the prophet, and had the rare experience among historians of actually leading men into combat. He took away lessons that still ring true today. A morale that is purely monetary will never suffice to keep men in good order when the chips are down.
The term esprit de corps is overused today, but remains quite relevant to military morale. Ibn Khaldoun’s fascination with tribal ‘asabiyya, the Arabic-language analogue to the French term for unit morale and cohesion, is a direct result of his experience leading ‘barbarian’ tribes to victory over the mercenary armies that defended settled lands throughout the region as long as their pay held out. Soft city-folk were unsuited to combat. This experience shaped his jaded outlook on military history, and thus political history, and thus all of history. We still live in the world of that siren call to jihad which made real stability impossible in Ibn Khaldoun’s world, producing cycles of rise and fall. Nothing could inspire the settled lands to resist the nomads stirred up by the call of faith.
Which brings us to the poetry.
Ibn Khaldoun worried at the same problem that bedeviled Mecca: how to make the rural tribes into defenders of the city (al-Medina) rather than its pillagers and extortionists. The solution was poetry. The Qur’an is supposed to be a a recitation, carried orally from its first generation to the moment it was written down. From that traditionalist point of view, the Qur’an is poetry from heaven. Seen from a secular western perspective, Muhammad’s innovation was to bring the prophetic tradition into poetry and call it scripture. Apologetics aside, it really varies from the pre-Islamic poets only in being revelatory. By either road, we arrive at poetry, and because it is poetry there is meter.
Osama bin Laden understood the power of poetic rhythm on the human heart (defined metaphorically). Here is where historiography wonders aloud: how did thousands of illiterate Arabs memorize the Qur’an so that it could be transmitted orally with any measure of precision? My answer is that they may have learned it on the march, and that perhaps this is what made the sons of the prophet such formidable foes in the operational conditions of the region.
I have two arguments based on the work of William H. McNeill. First is the meter itself. A sura has rhythm. Marching an army requires rhythm. Among the very first uses of a drum was to have everyone in hearing range step on the same foot at the same instant, keeping time, and thus move as a single body. Any rhyme which can be reduced to a 2/4 rhythm is a potential marching cadence. Picture battalions of Arabs, all moving together, all chanting a verse from the prophet, all learning the suras by heart as they proceed. Much as a basic trainee learns every marching cadence in the first week, so the convert to Islam must have learned dozens of suras on their very first campaign. This might be easily confirmed through experiment.
My second argument is intuitive. What we call “unit cohesion” was the social glue that gave Arab armies their power in the growth phase of Islam, and then made the fervent tribes of Ibn Khaldoun’s period into such formidable foes. Group vocalizations are a key aid to memorization. Never mind how al-muezzin recites the prayers from the minaret: I maintain that Qur’anic verse was learned on the march. If I am right, it explains the Qur’an. Muhammad’s basic problem was that no one could bring the tribes around Mecca under any kind of control and defend the city as a state. He solved that problem with verses that brought diverse “identities” under his banner of heaven, made them move together, recite the Qur’an together, fight together, risk death together under one leader.
If I am right, it explains why the Arab cities of Muhammad and Ibn Khaldoun could not defend themselves against tribesmen armed with the Qur’an. The history of Islam might just be a military history.
Great article, especially the parts about the power of poetic rhythm. Have you read Giambattista Vico? He has a famous book called the New Science. Large sections are titled 'Poetic Wisdom', wherein he lays out the claim that oral poetry, recitation, was basically the seed of civilisation, the original form of record-keeping, from which sprang all the arts. Obviously he refers to Homer, but it's probably relevant here too with the whirlwind rise of Islam in the 7th century.
OMG! I always wondered what it was about bin Laden when he spoke that I found utterly fascinating and you just nailed it for me.
Yes, his Arabic was very posh and polished.