Saturday, November 14, 2009

The warrior religion

Brief review of Glubb's history of early Islam

I am glad to report finding yet another gem in the hoary stacks of the local Catholic library, this time a history of early Islam, The Great Arab Conquests, by Lietenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb (string of British orders & honors omitted here), 1963. If Amazon is to be believed, this book is out of print, and not only that, but its title was swiped by another author in 2007. This is most unfortunate, since Glubb's work is fabulous- exceedingly well written, frank, pre-politically correct, yet full of sympathy for his subject. Glubb spent his career in the Middle East, serving in both world wars and running the Arab legion, later part of the Jordanian military. He takes particular pride in clearing up a few scholarly confusions using his intimate knowledge of the ground in the Middle East, and of its military uses.

The book focuses on the first fifty years of Islam, retelling the story of Muhammad's life, background, and call, then going on to detail the careers of the first five khalifs ("successors"). Glubb is a military man and focuses on the military aspects of the story, with excellent maps throughout. But as a long-time associate of Arabs, Bedouins, and people throughout the Middle East, he also evinces sensitivity and admiration for their cultures, some of which have persisted with little change from the seventh century. Military affairs were central to the early history of Islam, and to the mindset of Muslims of that time, so this focus is incisive as well as stimulating.

One thing to note is that the quality of the khalifs was highly variable, from the high of Abu Bekr who directly followed Muhammad, to the pathetic impotence of Ali ibn abi Talib, who, along with three others of the first five, was assassinated. Glubb's portrait gives precious little evidence supporting the many partisans of Ali (Shia, or Shiatu Ali), vociferous as they are, since despite having high religious credentials and the closest personal connections with Muhammed, Ali was evidently passed over for the khalifate several times for what ultimately proved to be quite good reasons.

I won't try to retell the whole story, but just say that if you are interested in this history, you could hardly do better that this presentation, be it ever so hard to find! Glubb also wrote a sequel and several other books on the Arab cultures and his experiences.

Let me cite a few of the more striking passages, indicating Glubb's view of Islam and our relations to it.

Speaking of the first two khalifs,
We have already seen that almost the last act of Abu Bekr was to receive Muthanna ibn Haritha, who had ridden in hot haste from the Euphrates to beg for help on the neglected Persian front. The first act of Umar ibn al Khattab on assuming the Khalifate had been to dismiss Khalid ibn al Waleed from the supreme command in Syria. The second has been, as the dying Abu Bekr had ordered, ro raise a new levy for Iraq. Volunteers were at first slow in coming forward, for the Persians seem to have enjoyed the reputation of being more formidable than the Byzantines in war. As a result, recruiting proceeded by slowly, even though Muthanna himself made a speech in the mosque calling for assistance, and describing the immense plunder obtainable by those who followed the path of God and fought against the fire-worshippers. p. 160

In the book's conclusion...
The momentum of the great conquests had been so tremendous that they swept irresistibly forward without organization, without pay, without plans, and without orders. They constitute a perpetual warning to technically advanced nations who rely for their defense on scientific progress rather than the human spirit.
A cosmopolitan empire, with subjects professing different religions, could not constitute a devoted and homogeneous people of high morale, such as the Central Arabians had been twenty-five years earlier. p.359

Since the seventh century, many Muslim state have, at various times, established efficient legal systems and police forces, rendering private retaliation unnecessary, but the idea of revenge dies hard. In a wider sense, the right, and even the duty, of revenge has survived all modern reforms, for as a result of these early origins, it has become an accepted moral principle. This, it seems to be, is one of the directions in which Christianity differs most from Islam. Christians are never entitled to return evil for evil. In Islam, retaliation is a right, in some cases being even regarded as a moral duty. p. 367

Particularly is it noticeable that the idea of government by groups of men- cabinets, parliaments or committees- has no precedent at all in Arab history. Their idea of government is always one man. In theory he is chosen by the people. He must be humble, accessible, benevolent, pious and hospitable. Arrogant despots cannot be tolerated but nevertheless executive power must be vested in one man alone. All these traditions can be traced from the seventh century.

At various times since 1918, the Western Powers have painstakingly built up democratic, elective institutions in the countries of the Middle East. In every case, within a few years, these constitutions have collapsed and military dictators have assumed power. Perhaps this is not to be wondered at, for the military dictator is nearer the time-honoured Arab tradition than is Western Democracy. p.369

And this last parting shot:
This long-standing rivalry between Christians and Muslims has been due to political and geographical accident rather than to basic religious differences. Now that materialist atheism is challenging all spiritual values, the two religions might well make common cause against those who deny the existence of God altogether. There is, I believe, an immense field in which the two could co-operate. p. 371

One observation that struck me was the relation of Islam to power. Humans worship power- that is an unfortunate, but consistent, part of our nature (with obvious Darwinian origins). Power is an aphrodisiac to women, the source of male status, and the goal of youthful striving and careerist competition. Religion is little more than an expression of this emotion in over-wrought terms, since God is all-powerful, Jesus is Lord, and prayers and beseeching are our mode of intercession/intercourse with the imaginary beings.

Islam as refined this simple fact of human nature to the highest possible pitch, instituting and naming itself by universal submission to Allah who is great, while at the same time borrowing a bit of that greatness and demanding submission from all non-Muslims as a matter of right, whether the Dhimmi, (Christians and Jews), who are made second class citizens, or the outright infidels, who are offered conversion or death.

That is why terrorism works. The early Muslims used terror repeatedly, in quelling dissent in Medina under Muhammad, and in displaying power to quell resistance in the early conquests, when they didn't have the manpower to fully occupy the countryside (Glubb gives vivid examples in the conquest of Egypt). Terror cheaply communicates raw power and extreme dedication to one's cause, regardless of legitimacy or aims. And people respect, if not worship, power, combining a natural ability to tell which way the wind blows with a true respect for such dedication and will power. As Reagan said, "Nothing succeeds like success."


  1. Interesting. Yeah, Islam was born out of success. Christianity was born out of utter failure. The former has to do with ruling - the latter what to do when you are being ruled. I've often thought that "turning the other cheek" was a way to establish a level of power when you had none.

    But can moderate and liberal Muslims employ any exegesis to their scriptures and history that allows more tolerance? We know that many of the Muslim leaders in Spain (pre-Inquisition) were tolerant of Christians and Jews and were quite cosmopolitan.

  2. Absolutely- the Sufis have done so much work in that direction. Yet as you know, the fundamentals of a faith tend to poke through time and again, by the logic of the "truth" of the core system, which is best served fundamentally. The Sufis have faced no end of suspicion and oppression from their co-religionists, despite pledging perpetually to the core truths of Muhammed. Their re-interpretation of Jihad as an inner spiritual quest is met with quite a bit of suspicion, and from a historical perspective, quite rightly so.

    The only real reformation comes from starting new religions, which in the case of Islam might be Bahai, which is quite a nice religion.

    To some extent the stories we tell ourselves are always fibs and fictions. It is impossible to be completely truthful with ourselves, so as you say, an overarching goal of human cultivation is to tell nice stories rather than mean ones. But making them as truthful as possible ... that would be useful and nice as well, I think, if difficult.

  3. I love many Sufi ideas. Oftentimes I forget completely that they are Muslim! Thanks for the reminder. I like their idea of time - which doesn't look backwards, but rather looks at everything and everyone which has already been as walking ahead of us. We are following.

    Yes, I agree - truthfulness is the way to go. I often think of three ways of approaching truth. One is the literalist religious way coupled with superstition, etc. The next is the observational way - empirical truth. Then the 3rd way is metaphor - realizing that all language is an attempt at describing the ineffable nature of reality.

    But hey, I'm a mystic at heart. Probably why I have often liked Sufi thought.....