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Did the Ridda Wars indicate the rise of an Arab elite that assumed control of Islam? This paper considers The Life of Muhammad to involve both a theological and political treatise preceding the Arab conquests. It deals with other prophets of the time besides Muhammad.
Ridda Wars: Islam, Politics and Arab Elites
The Ridda Wars concerned the nature of Islam in its earliest stages as a state rather than
a religion, and its fundamental connection to an Arab elite. If the connection with
religion is removed, this episode resembles a gathering of clans for an imperial
adventure. Surely that is what it was? Fred Donner writes that it is difficult to separate
civilian and military aspects in early Islam but that was because there was little
separation, the military aspects reinforced the Arab identity which was essential for the
construction of Islamic identity. Fred M Donner remarks that if the Medina episode is
considered, the evidence in the Life of Muhammad indicates that the entire Medina
community was structured for war and that therefore in its early stages war and Islam
were inseparable. Again it is not necessary to assume the close truth of the Muhammad
biographies as later redaction1may have occurred.
The wars of conquest that followed the Ridda Wars can be seen as a means of
establishing a state known only in abstract. In order to accomplish this, Arab
communities needed to be in areas where states already existed or where the resources
of a state were available, Syria, Persia and Egypt. That harams and holy families or
groups played a part in the construction of an Arab state is to be expected during an age
of developed, powerful, organised and unified religions. The possible course of the war,
1 The Growth of Military Institutions in the Early Caliphate and their Relation to
Civilian Authority. Al-Qantara; Madrid Vol. 14, Iss. 2, (Jan 1, 1993): 311.
the refusal by tribal leaders to pay tax to Abu Bakr, indicates the process of statehood
but nevertheless was not uncommon either and may indicate that the new unified
confederation was adopting the methods of earlier confederations.
The view of Andrey Korotayev et al2 that states collapsed in the region as epitomised by
the end of written works, and at the beginning of Muhammad’s religious career kings
disappeared, with free tribes rather than chiefdoms. Korotayev et al believe that
something truly dramatic occurred whereby the only possible reason was for the
subsequent political devastation was environmental and its cure celestial. The only
accepted king or emperor was a god, with consequently a prophet as his regent caused it
seems by the collaboration of a prophet movement (Rahmanite) and monotheism. The
authors itemise several reasons such as earthquakes, volcanic activity and subsequent
droughts that caused the break-up of organised political units but equally it might
simply have been the economic consequences of the continued Persian and Roman
wars, as well as Byzantine oppression of Christian ideas the state did not approve of and
the continued rampaging of nomadic tribes into civilised or urbanised regions.
Populations remained on the move and identity was in flux. The principal expression of
quasi Arab statehood, taxation of smaller political groups, may have largely ceased. Of
course the Ridda wars were over the right of taxation. Korotayev et al suggest that it
was the refusal to pay tax in lean years that caused the breakdown of supratribal
political structures replacing them with soft political structures such as religion, so it is
indeed within religion that the most successful Arab political structure can be found.
The streamlining of history accomplished by Islamic historians with the focus on
Muhammad was mainly for political reasons as the Islamic narrative concerns the
2 Origins of Islam: Political-Anthropological and Environmental Context.
Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hung. Volume 52 (3 –4 ) , 2 4 3
– 7 6 ( 1 9 9 9 )
construction of a hierarchical ruling elite and a single powerful leader. Al Makin3
questions Muhammad’s dominance of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. The
followers of a holy figure tend to exaggerate their hero, seen also in the story of Jesus.
Apart from the claims of his followers there is no reason to believe that Jesus had any
great importance during the time he lived. Both Jesus and Muhammad were constructed
by literary products, with endless doubt placed on their careers. Koratayev et al also
considered an idea I expanded on in previous papers that within The Area of Four
Sanctuaries lay the possible genesis of a religious/political system, one that certainly did
not require the presence of Muhammad. Both Jesus and Muhammad’s characters were
perhaps imposed on political and social phenomena. Al Makin specially raises to
prominence a prophet active at the same time as Muhammad, Umayyah Ibn Abi Salt,
and that the centralising on Muhammad has obscured his career.
Makin, like myself, has pointed out the singular role of The Life of Muhammad in
creating the idea of Muhammad as the final prophet bringing in some ways the end of
time, the final revelation which through an elaborate mythology places Islam at the
beginning of time. As with Jesus and the Gospels, the world might not know much
about either without the Gospels and The Life, or Life’s. The story of Muhammad is
particularly dependent on that narrative or narratives with a theological and political
focus. As Makin writes, Muhammad is literature (adab), history (tarikh), praised, even
given his violence, as perfection (Isan kamil). Tarikh places the world’s object, its
creation, as Muhammad’s prophethood. Makin notes the inclusion of non-biblical
prophets, Salih and Hud, to substantiate, indeed echo, Muhammad’s later role. Both
3 Re-Thinking Other Claimants to Prophethood: The Case of Umayya Ibn Abi Salt.
begin their prophethood at 40, although outside Islamic literature there is no evidence of
their existence.
The Qur’an provides additional evidence of the authenticity of Muhammad, seen as
unequalled in terms of rhetoric, language, vocabulary and structure, essentially on its
original Arabic rendering. The writing of the Qur’an according to Islamic belief (sarfu)
took away humankind’s ability to produce wonderful writing eliminating thereby the
later appearance of Rumi, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Milton and countless others. The
Qu’ran was written in a particular repetitive style with short phrases and dropped
endings, at times distinguished indicating philosophical mysteries and at other times
not. As a point of exceptionality, it is a literary mirage floating in a desert of religious
conviction. Makin suggests indeed that this myopic focus on Muhammad, Qur’an and
specific history hides the fact that there were several prophets, Qur’ans, mosques and
hanifs. Makin challenges the notion of khatam, Muhammad as the final prophet with
none coming after him, suggesting it refers to a stamp and that Khatam signifying the
Final Prophet arrived through the later emergence of other prophets and constant civil
wars. This and other ideological problems arise out of Islam’s obsession with and over
confidence in words, not understanding that words can alter their meaning or exhibit
several. Famously, the Qur’an’s meaning is often obtuse and its scholars obsessively
search for the true meaning of word and phrasing. In Islam, word and god are intimately
connected, with words exhibiting unusual power.
Makin writes that during the civil wars several of the rebel leaders, such as al-
Mukhtar, claimed to be prophets. He points out that the later Caliphs employed the idea
of false prophets to get rid of dissenting voices, much as present day tyrants find
excuses to destroy those that oppose them.
There were several prophets at the time of Muhammad and after his death. Each may
have contributed to the growth of Islam as both polity and religion. The known prophets
are not it seems mentioned to any degree in the Qur’an while 25 mythical prophets and
apostles are, indicating a desire to deny contradictions to the message or its production,
and place all innovations under Muhammad. Makin further details the episode in Ibn
Khaldun where on his death bed Muhammad orders the rejection and death (jihad
against) many prophets, whom Muhammad labels liars. Why should they have been
liars and were they labelled thus by Muhammad or much later historians? The control of
Islamic narratives had a political origin, which plausibly can be found in Baghdad and
even Medina. Its purpose was political control.
Makin declares that the various prophets whose efforts were denied were equal perhaps
to Muhammad and were part of an Arab tendency to reconcile pagan Arab ideas to
Christian and Judaic ones based on monotheism. This is in line with the idea in the
previous paper that the Life of Muhammad details an evolving theology from Christian
to Judaism. The Ridda Wars were nevertheless an attempt to streamline the religion and
Arab believers and collaborators into efficient soldiers for wars of conquest.
The Ridda Wars formed an essential part of Islamic culture and religion through the
difficult discourse on authoritarianism and the leadership of one. Shaykh Muhammad
Hasan Aal Yasin holds that the Ridda wars never happened but were invented by Saf b.
Umar, the main source for Tabari’s description of these events.4 The reason proffered
4 Landau-Tasseron, Ella. Sayf Ibn 'Umar in Medieval and Modern Scholarship Der
Islam 67(1):1-26
seems to have been that true Muslims are obedient. Although the concept of being or not
being Muslim was not yet fixed, the integration of Arabs within a militaristic unity was
perhaps deemed essential even at this stage. Arab society had subsisted on martial
prowess and thereby understood the greater world in the same or similar fashion. Only
under the rule of one could Arabs achieve victory over the surrounding empires in line
with those empires’ institutions of rule. The moral positioning of obedience, although
connected to Islamic constructs, seems more acceptable if connected to political and
military intentions. The prior Jahiliyyah, of doubtful historical legitimacy, is normally
presented as anarchic in Islamic writing and is contrasted with the political and social
obedience paradigms of Islam with state formation.
It may be that it was during the Ridda Wars that Islam genuinely emerged as a
combination of religion, politics and military constructs. It was certainly when some
evidence of statehood emerged.5There is little evidence of course for the Ridda Wars
and the subsequent emergence of Arabian wide unity outside of Islamic writings some
hundred years and more after the events detailed. There is silence from their neighbours.
Although a coming together of Arab tribes, it was probably within a confederacy until
the establishment of Arab rule in the territory of older states.
The Ridda Wars came after the death of Muhammad and concerned the paying of taxes
to his successor Abu Bakr, designated Caliph. These papers consider that under
Muhammad elite rule had emerged and established itself, but this was due less to any
probable mythical war between Medina and Mecca but due to political and social
developments within the tribes and clans situated within the borders or close to the
borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, reflecting events there. Similarly, the
construction of political Islam proceeded from religious developments indicated above
and described by Al Makin through claims of prophethood throughout North West
Arabia, driven by poetic production. Makin indeed claims, with substantial evidence,
that parts of the Qur’an were composed by Umayyah Ibn Abi Salt and that
Muhammad’s character was first based on the older prophet.
The substance of the Ridda Wars was the growing control of the slowly evolving
religious movement(s) by elite groups. Probably the rule of one supreme military and
religious ruler came slowly as there are indicators during Mohammad’s time in Medina
of committees at work. It is perhaps not wise to accept Muhammad as sole ruler of
Medina and if he ever became so it was towards his final years.
The early narrative in The Life of Muhammad can be seen as an allegory on war
beginning with the Christian approach exemplified by Muhammad in Mecca, onto the
embracing of war and then fusing it with spirituality until it becomes a core practice of
the early religion. The wars of conquest according to Islam began with the Battle of
Mu’tah ordered by Muhammad in supposed retaliation for the murder of a Muslim
emissary, although Philip K. Hitti in the conquest of Syria 6suggests it was about
claiming the Mashrafiyah sword production for use against Mecca. Such a move
resembles Muhammad’s general war strategies, described in The Life of Muhammad,
especially the claim of being insulted or attacked first. According to Tabari, 3000
warriors attack the area under Zayd ibn-Harithah, Muhammad’s adopted son, who lost
his life in the fighting and the apparently newly converted Khalid ibn-al-Walid becomes
the leader. In the following year, according to Waqidi, Muhammed led an army at
Tobuk,. These are celebrated, much heralded actions indicating the connection of
conquest, warfare and extreme violence with early Islam.
6 History of the Arabs From the Earliest Times to the Present. Palgrave History
There are arguments concerning Islamic warfare which stress that war was not valid as a
means of conversion. Zakaria Bashier7 presents the view that persuasion and valid
arguments must be employed. There is some validity to this approach, but cannot
explain the extreme violence. The further argument that Islam employs violence only in
defence flounders with respect to the creation of an empire, mainly through war. The
British commonly believed that they fell into imperial ways simply by accident and
were somehow surprised that by the 19th century they had colonised most of the world.
In fact it was early acquired by warrior entrepreneurs given credibility by governments.
It is common for conquerors throughout history to disclaim moral involvement and
intention in overwhelming vast areas and populations. Gingis Khan claimed he
conquered because of the moral failures of those he conquered, and he came as a
benefactor from god. From his time in Mecca Muhammad conquered others because
they disagreed with him. The lure of conquest and a better life, the Arab elite’s desire
for power over others, were also factors. The conquests may indeed have had a religious
purpose, but as the conquests were over other monotheistic faiths this can wisely be
doubted. The claim that Islam represented a pure form of monotheism and Judaism and
Christianity had been misled, in fact that Islam the youngest of the monotheistic
religions was in its theology the oldest , seems an explanation produced to explain war
against monotheist states. The resemblance of Islamic monotheism to Montanism and
Donatism emphasises that possibility as they formed centuries before Islam. Montanus
for example, who emerged in Anatolia, claimed to be the final revelation and taught a
legalistic moral rigour similar to later Islam. Besides which, early Christianity asserted
community standards based on mutual help but not necessarily puritanism. The same
confused morality is evident in the Judaic books that preceded Islam. Statements from
early literature again contradict the religious purposes of the conquest, for example
7 War and Peace in the Life of Prophet Muhammad. Kube Publishing Ltd. 2015
evidence of the differences of Judaism and Christianity to Islam (Hoyland,8 120) and
Donner’s assertion found on page 133 of Hoyland’s paper that for the 7th century
religion involved expressions of power and identity. However it may be perceived, the
enlarged Arab state, whether a Caliphate or not, was expanding towards imperial status
through war.
The religious provenance of Islamic conquest should not be denied, as it would seem I
have done here, but nor should it be treated as dominant in the historical progression of
Arab tribes. Pursuit of an expanded identity, as most Arabic speakers did not consider
themselves the same as other Arabic speakers, riches, luxury and power drove the forces
of Islam not against paganism but against their fellow monotheists.
8 Hoyland, Robert G. The Identity of the Arabian Conquerors of the Seventh-Century
Middle East.
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