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Review: Delving into the Realities of Politics and the Army in the Caliphate: The Writings of Omar Farouk Fawzy on the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 6/1/2012


The long war on terrorism necessitates that we immerse ourselves in books of military significance published in Arabic, as all war is fought in the mind first. These books can range from those written by terrorists, those combating terrorism, to the subject of this essay, the Umayyad Caliphate, a period that came three decades after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. Dr. Omar Farouk Fawzy (hereafter referred to as Fawzy) is an Iraqi historian, and among the few Arabs who specialize in the history of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. His books form a part of my course as my students and I discuss the obsession Militant Islamists have in re-establishing the Caliphate as a long-term inter-generational objective.

This necessitates a closer examination of this institution, beyond the sound bites al-Qaida provides to appeal to segments of the Muslim world. Fawzy’s recent book published in 2005 is his “al-Jaysh wal-Siyasah fee Asr al-Amawi wa Matla’a al-Abassi, (661-956 CE),” which translates into, “The Army and Politics in the Umayyad Age to the Beginning of the Abbasids (661 to 956 CE).” Translating, analyzing and discussing Arabic books that delve into such topics begins to immerse us in the language of our adversary, and as we become more proficient in the history of the Middle East and Islam, one comes to the regrettable conclusion that al-Qaida capitalizes on a sense of Islamic history, and not knowledge of history. This chapter highlights Fawzy’s work, and exposes the complexities of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, its realism, and the takes away the mythology that is infused by Militant Islamist to glorify a political tradition that is not inherent in Islamic orthodoxy or tenants of faith. The book was published in Amman, Jordan, by Majdalawi Books and is 237 pages. Fawzy teaches at the Ahl al-Bayt University in Jordan, and participated in UNESCO’s History of Humanity Project.

Discussions on Early Islamic Warfare

From the start of Islam in 609 CE, the entire ummah (Muslim community) by necessity and self-preservation against the more powerful Meccan tribal confederacy was mobilized for war. This mobilization or what one would call, “a nation at war,” would extend into the Umayyad period. Every male capable of bearing arms were registered in the Diwan al-Ata, literally the distribution registry that ensured that spoils were divided, and provisions made for the families of those killed in battle. It is known that Muslims did not engage in warfare until after the migration of Prophet Muhammad to Medina in 622 CE and only after the sword verses were revealed to Muhammad sanctioning him to take offensive and preemptive action against the Meccans. The book dissects the discussions of Islamic warfare, referring to it as qital (offensive warfare) which is conducted to defend the right to practice Islam and conduct evangelism of the faith, known in Arabic as dawa. These details are missing in Militant Islamist diatribe, and regrettably there are western authors who tie offensive jihad, and dawa as two sides of the same coin. The problem with this is that this distinction that one must call people to Islam before engaging in fighting is a nuanced distinction that divides Salafis today. Another reason to engage in fighting is to defend against external enemies, or suppress internal strife or civil war, known as fitna. The author writes that Islam does not sanction warfare for no reason, and recommends it be conducted with the minimum of fighting, he cites Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca in which the Prophet ordered no wholesale vengeance and granted pardons to member of the Quraysh who were among his most violent enemies.

The Importance of the Registry of Fighters: Making Islam Fit Tribal Realities In the age of the first four caliphs after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE to 661 CE, the principle of the fighting ummah was retained and the system formalized with registry under Caliph Omar (634-644 CE), the second Caliph after Muhammad’s death. The registry itself became an instrument of tribal statecraft, as many chiefs were concerned about who made the list and who did not, and what share of the spoils would be allotted to those representing their tribe. It was under Caliph Omar, that Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, who would found the Umayyad Caliphate, was appointed Governor of Damascus. He undertook some reforms of the tribal levies, making each tribe responsible for raising and equipping 1,000 fighters, and appointed 10 arifs (overseers and the modern Arabic term for corporal) to instill order, this force has a wali at its head. This entire structure was kept within the tribe. The lowest tribal unit utilized by the Umayyad Caliphate was the asheera (clan). Another pressure was the integration of more non-Arab Muslims from Persia, modern day Afghanistan, and the Caucuses, into the growing empire. Umayyad power was dictated by caliphs who were successful in tying tribal survival and the success to the success and health of the institution of the caliphate. The weakness of the Umayyad’s is due to their ability to create a standing army loyal to the caliph, and their over reliance on tribal levies and the whims of tribal chiefs. The Mawali system was one way used to incorporate non-Arab Muslims, but in effect it created a caste system, whereby the Mawalis (recent converts) were second class citizens in terms of spoils, benefits and treatment. The Abbasids who would overthrow the Umayyad caliphate would capitalize on this schism and emerging caste system.

Caliph Omar and the Creation of the Soldier’s Council

The expansion of Muslim forces into the Sassanid Persian Empire and Byzantium led Omar to create Diwan al-Jund, literally Soldier’s Council in Medina. The Diwan and its rolls for spoils were divided with those accepting Islam before the Battle of Badr (Islam’s first battle, which Muhammad was outnumbered three to one) were given a larger share, than those who entered into Islam after Badr. Those who entered into Islam before the Treaty of Hudaybiyah with the Meccans were given the second largest share, than those who entered before. This division of shares included segregating between those who entered into Islam before the battle of Qadisiyah (the battle that defeated the Persian Empire) and after. This division occurred during Muhammad’s lifetime with those converting to Islam in Mecca, known as muhajiroon (émigrés) taking the most risks and being closest to Muhammad, than the ansar (helpers) of Medina who were more interested initially in Muhammad’s arbitration skills. The first four caliphs after Muhammad’s death (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali) would be muhajiroon. The Diwan al-Jund established by Omar was further divided into three specialized councils, known as Diwan al-Zarari, that provided for widows and families of those who died in war, Makhazen al-Silaah literally armory but more like armory, weapons maintenance, weapons manufacture, and logistics, and finally Tanzeem al-Ata (Spoils Organization), that focused on dividing spoils based on the caste system discussed. There was also an intelligence gathering unit, and a committee that established rules and regulations while on the march. By the Abbasid period in 956 CE, each region would have a Diwan al-Jund, for instance Diwan Jund al-Sham, or Consultative Group for the Army of the Levant, as well as one for Khorasan and so on. Some Diwans created smaller committees such as Majlis al-Muqabala, or reception committee that dealt with receiving and negotiating truces and surrenders or Majlis al-Tahrir or committee for liberation that addressed the transition of a city or region into the caliphate.

The Umayyad Challenge: Balancing Central Authority with Tribalism

Reconciling the caliphate and tribal loyalties would be a constant challenge of the Umayyads. They addressed this by placing tribes and tribal confederacies, in different regional armies. Another pressure on the caliphate was the constant demand from desert tribes to settle on fertile lands, preferring agricultural settlement to constant roving and fighting. The first given equal status as Arabs in the spoils system were the Persians under Caliph Omar, and by the caliphate of Muawiyyah, Persians were encouraged to settle the Jordan and the Levant, as a means of competing with Arab tribes. During this period Turkic tribes began to enter Islam, and when the Umayyad Caliphate entered into Egypt and North Africa, Berber tribes entered the caliphate. These tribes were given preference based on a complex system that determined if they surrendered without a fight, resisted stubbornly, accepted Islam or did not. The book uses North African tribes to demonstrate the point, the Liawatah and Zinata tribes of North Africa were given preference aiding Numan al-Ghassani in governing the region in 695 CE. In 704 CE, the Umayyad deputy of North Africa Musa ibn al-Nusair instituted tribal levy system for the Kitama, Hawarah, Zinata and Masmuda to name a few tribal confederacies, allocating 12,000 fighters to Tariq ibn Ziyad and his expedition to conquer Iberia.

In 661 CE, Muawiyah shifted the caliphate by force from the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and fourth caliph Ali. The central issue was Muawiyah’s refusal to recognize the caliphate of Ali until he avenged the assassination of the third caliph Uthman. Ali refused to pursue the assassins, until Muawiyah pledged allegiance and recognized his caliphate. The first fitna (civil war) not only pitted Muslim against Muslim, but exposed Muslims as fighting for the earthly issues of politics, tribe, regional origins, as well as factional issues and not for God’s glory. Muawiyah was more successful than Ali in tribal negotiations; one example was the promises made to the tribal chieftain of the Yamaniyah Confederacy in the Levant, Hasaan ibn Malik. Among the promises made, was a place of consultation with the caliph, an opinion in the caliph’s diwan, and a say in matters that loosen and bind for himself and his son. Note that money was not discussed, but a consultation and influence. The terms loosen and bind, or in Arabic haa’l wal aqd, is the appropriate term for the fragility of tribal politics. As the wars between Muawiyah and Ali intensified in southern Iraq, Muawiyah’s emissary in Iraq Yazid ibn Hubairah worked tirelessly to gain the allegiance of Lakhmid and Ghassanid tribes in Byzantium and Persia respectively, netting 20,000 fighter against Ali. Part of the negotiations was Ali’s determination to move the Islamic capital from Medina to Kufa in southern Iraq, marginalizing the larger city-tribal confederacy of Damascus, governed by Muawiyah, who used this to stir up support in his titanic struggle with Ali. Tribes were organized by region and tied to Damascus through spoils, consultation, bribes and the payment of protection money. Another schism seized upon by Muawiyah was the caste system between Arab and Non-Arab Muslims, in which the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, pledged to do more to equalize the share of spoils for all Muslims. Note, that these promises and the tribal basis of the Umayyad’s would necessitate the conquest of new lands. Muawiyah, after defeating Ali in 661 CE, would expand the empire further into North Africa and consolidate Muslim gains in the Levant, Persia and Mesopotamia. In 680 CE, Muawiyah died, but he cultivated his son Yazid to taking the caliphate, cautioning him that the tribes of the Levant formed the backbone of the empire. He would give his son good advice as not only did the dead caliph Ali’s son Hussein challenge Muawiyah and his son Yazid for the caliphate in Medina. The new Umayyad caliph, Yazid would ambush Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in Karbala in 680 CE. Abdullah ibn al-Zubair declared himself caliph in Medina, and successor to Hussein. He used his credentials as a companion of Prophet Muhammad to stitch together a tribal confederacy from Basra, Kufa, Khorasan and Egypt. Ibn al-Zubair was a more immediate challenge, and he sought to overthrow Yazid. This rebellion would take the support of the Tribal Army of the Levant, Army of the Jordan, and Yamaniyah Confederacy to defeat which after battles and truces was not fully resolved until the reign of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, grandson of Yazid in 692 CE. Tribes on the fence line of this conflict seized the opportunity to demand higher prices for their support, an example of this was the Kalb Tribal Confederacy who not only demanded 4 million dirhams (a silver currency piece) to field 2,000 troops for the Umayyads, but stipulated their support that the successor to Caliph Marwan ibn al-Hakam would be Khalid ibn al-Walid, and increased consultation on matters of state. The deal struck over succession would be ignored. The Kindah tribe asked for settlement land in the Levant.

The Abbasid Caliphate Creates the First Standing Army

The Abbasids (750-1258 CE) created the first standing army in Islamic history, the core of which was called the firqah (team) known as Ahl al-Khorasan or People of Khorasan in modern day eastern Persia along the Afghan border. These were Arabs who fought for the Abbasids and gained the military momentum needed to oust the Umayyad Caliphate. It would be under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutassim that Turkic tribes, would evolve into not only a standing army, but would evolve into a praetorian guard that interfered in the political intrigues of the caliphate, up to selecting who would be caliph.

Arabic Islamic literature on warfare is discussed in the book and starts with collected letters and instructions on war, published about two centuries after Prophet Muhammad’s death. Eight centuries after Muhammad’s death letters on the storage of weapons and management of an armory was published. Tarushi five centuries after Muhammad’s death published War and its Organization, the famous Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote, “The Organization of Mamluke Soliders, their Camps, and their Compensation.” Hundreds of letters and books exist that discuss the finer details of war, from cavalry, laying sieges, siege engines, to deployment of infantry. Two hundred years after Muhammad’s death, the Bani Musa brothers published, “Machines of War,” that delve into siege engines.

Usually those who were entered into the spoils registry provided their own shield, helmet, sword and horse, although the caliph did supply these items when needed such as in the Battle of Qadisiyah in 636 CE, that defeated the Sassanid Persians. Muhammad’s example when taken holistically and not narrowly as modern Militant Islamists do reveals an entire corpus of literature on Adab al-Harb (Conduct of War). This includes treatises on the mistreatment of prisoners, killing non-combatants, torturing women, children and the elderly, murdering the same, uprooting trees, and demolishing homes were all discouraged in early Islamic warfare. Even the intent of the person going to war with a Muslim army was debated by early scholars, as reward in the afterlife was technically for those waging war for the glory of God and not personal glory or gain. These books are of no interest to the likes of the late Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who took delight in calling himself Sheikh of the Butchers, and transformed beheadings into a public spectacle.


Fawzy’s book ends with the argument that the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate was their overreliance on tribal levies for a fighting force, and hence they were subject to the whims of tribal chieftains. The Abbasids Caliphate would create a standing army of Turks, but would suffer the fate of being overtaken by this specialized Praetorian Guard. Fawzy’s appendix discusses the use of intelligence in early Islamic battles, as well as an excellent section that has the dozens of tribal and personal pennants used by early Islamic armies. The book also exposes that the Caliphate, like any other dynastic institution is subject to the realities of local and tribal politics. Muslims, Arabs, non-Arabs were unified by self-preservation and self-interest and not necessarily faith. Arabic books, like Fawzy’s, represents the future of what needs to be translated, debated, and discussed in America’s military war colleges and service academies. It also demythologizes the al-Qaida’s simplistic view of the complexity of the caliphate, which they have reduced to mere sound-bites without a true knowledge of Islamic history. It is hoped that this review essay of an Arabic work will lead to an exchange of views between our Arabic and English speaking readers.

CDR Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010). He currently teaches part-time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. For four years (2002 to 2006), he served as Middle East Country Director and Advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He wishes to thank LCDR Andrew Bertrand, MSC, USN, a graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College for his edits and comments that enhanced this work.



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