Claritas Books has taken the opportunity to interview Professor Joel Hayward, a scholar of Islam considered to be one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims. With his new book The Warrior Prophet: Muhammad ﷺ and War now being released by Claritas, we were especially keen to learn from Professor Joel his understanding of the Holy Prophet’s use of warfare as a transformational tool.
This very analytical book is clearly very different to other books on the Prophet’s warfare. How do you explain the difference? Did you rely on difference sources, or did you approach the known evidence with a new method?
These are good questions. I certainly think I wanted to start my investigation from a different vantage-point to other writers. I consciously avoided the traditional Islamic explanation that Muhammad excelled at warfare simply because he was a prophet and was therefore good at everything and, going further, because God did everything to make him win. To me, this understandable but incomplete explanation ignores Muhammad's agency and hides his unusual human aptitude and the skill with which he achieved his goals. The Prophet was — as I came to see and have tried to demonstrate —himself an intelligent, astute, and skilled strategist and warrior who understood the necessity of warfare as well as its societally transformational power.
Indeed, rather than writing a general history of the Prophet’s life, the task I set myself was only to investigate what the early Arabic sources reveal about his capacity and aptitude for using warfare for societal and religious purposes and to decide whether and to what degree he acted deliberately in ways that produced positive results, especially those he consciously wanted, during his decade of armed warfare. That decade, Muslim readers will remember, began with the Hijra in 622 CE and ended with his death in 632.
And what did you conclude about the Prophet’s ability as a warrior?
Arabian inter-tribal warfare was then a relatively bloodless activity that was far more about projecting confidence, maximizing power, and demonstrating chiefly authority than about inflicting death and destruction. My careful reading of the evidence over many years led me to conclude that the Prophet was unmistakably capable and effective within this type of warfare. Moral, valiant, inventive, unhesitant, and always inspiring to his soldiers, he knew how best to maintain pressure on his enemies and to stay one step ahead of them so that they could only react to his moves without being able to implement their own plans. Exploiting speed, surprise, and unity of command, he was able to move even large and tightly cohesive forces skillfully over long distances to impose his will on enemies with minimal losses on either side.
Is it true that you worked on this book for over ten years?
Yes, that’s right. I first conceived the book and began its research in late 2010, when I was still the Dean of the Royal Air Force College in the UK. I worked on the book steadily until I finally submitted the manuscript in April 2022, so in fact it took over eleven years to complete. When I started the book, I had no grey hair at all, but now my hair and beard are completely silver and white. It has been a long slog.
Why did it take so long? Normally you seem to write a book every year or two.
To be honest, I started with a certain hypothesis in mind, and once I began to test that hypothesis, I quickly came to realize that the evidence would not support it. So, I had to revise my hypothesis completely and start again. Actually, this happened twice, the first time in 2013 or 2014 and the second time in 2017. This means that twice I scrapped all my work and started again from scratch. I’m not embarrassed about this. Every scholar should be open to changing his or her mind if the evidence points away from the hypothesis being tested.
Can you please elaborate on that?
Well, when I commenced its research in 2010, I gave the book the initial working title of The Reluctant Warrior: Muhammad and War. Based on all my preliminary reading, especially of modern biographies of the Prophet and other secondary sources, the original hypothesis that I wanted to test was that the Prophet really disliked war, mainly because of its intrinsic harmfulness, and was accordingly always worried or cautious about war’s unpredictable and almost unmanageable nature. He therefore tried to avoid armed conflict whenever he could and adopted and steadfastly maintained a defensive strategy. Yet, during my eleven years of painstaking daily analysis of the earliest extant works of Sirah, the canonical hadiths, and relevant early works of Fiqh, it became clear to me that my original hypothesis could not be sustained by an objective and even-handed reading of the evidence.
Do you mean by this that you dedicated yourself to being analytically detached?
Yes, that’s right. Even historians like me who hold to a religious worldview generally understand that their strongest likelihood of saying something accurate, tenable, and meaningful about past events will be achieved by analyzing the sources in a detached and dispassionate fashion whilst remaining aware of the possible influence of their own assumptions, values, and biases.
This is not easy, of course. I am both a committed Muslim and a historian, which means three things: first, I believe that Muhammad was the Prophet of the God in whom I believe; second, I accept the Holy Qur’an as my book of divine guidance; and third, I believe that my strongest likelihood of adequately and meaningfully explaining the events of the Prophet’s life is by using the established methodology of the modern academic discipline of history. By that, I mean interrogating the earliest extant sources for the Prophet’s life in a detached and dispassionate manner, searching for meaning while remaining aware of the ways in which my religious beliefs have influenced my assumptions, values, and biases.
So, what do you think motivated the Prophet when he undertook his campaigns and raids?
The evidence is clear that the Prophet possessed no animus dominandi, or personal lust for power. His warfare certainly did not result from a desire to acquire and use power out of personal ambition, but, rather, it emerged from his earnest yearning to create a movement of religious reform that emphasized strict monotheism and moral behavior in conformity with what God revealed to and through him. Yet, to spread this movement throughout a highly war-filled and competitive region, and to nurture its growth beyond infancy so that it would survive after his own death, he would need to acquire societal power, and plenty of it; a reality that he grasped very early on.
Seventh-century Arabia was a very disunited and unruly region with its scores of tribes being in a constant state of warfare. Taking responsibility for their own wellbeing, the tribes provided their members with the maximum amount of safety, security, stability, and prosperity that they could achieve through commercial competition, fighting, and alliances. The Prophet believed that his embryonic religious community would only survive if it mastered the realities of this self-help system and continuously maximized his community’s power and influence to gain and retain security and to keep rivals from acquiring additional power at Islam’s expense. If the Islamic polity could emerge as the strongest power within and immediately beyond the Hijaz, ideally as the sole power, then it could guarantee its survival and provide its people with security, stability, and prosperity.
The Prophet’s approach to security worked extremely well, and, by continually seeking to maximize his polity’s power and influence at the relative expense of potential and actual rivals and opponents — and by working skillfully to separate those rivals from the strength that they might gain from forming alliances — he had by the end of his life in 632 CE secured for Islam significant strength, stability, security and prosperity in the Hijaz and its bordering areas.
It is sometimes said that the Prophet saw warfare as somehow wrong but necessary. Can you please comment on this.
Actually, the Prophet certainly never saw war as a “necessary evil.” Although we use such phrases today to create a type of moral relativism, these are very modern concepts. They were certainly not known to seventh-century Arabian chieftains who lived in a milieu in which warfare was commonplace yet capable of providing material benefit and social esteem. Moreover, as a religious prophet, it would have been unfitting for the Prophet to have undertaken anything evil, even if it provided significant benefit.
You demonstrate that, on a number of occasions, the Holy Prophet initiated the battles; that is, that he attacked enemies and fought them offensively. Yet we are accustomed to saying that he only fought defensive wars. How do you explain this?
In sixth and seventh-century northern Arabia, a state of warfare was the ordinary condition between tribes and clans. Fighting between them was certainly a regular, almost constant, activity. In other words, rather than experiencing peace as the default setting as we thankfully now do — with warfare occurring only sporadically as states run out of better options to address their grievances — a general state of war was commonly understood in the seventh century always to exist among the Arabian tribes and clans. Of course, within this context, with a state of war as the default setting, we know that many tribal groups, particularly the settled groups, did form alliances with others and enjoyed amicable relations based on mutually beneficial trade, commerce, and ancestral or kindship relations. Yet within this context, excluding those communities enjoying amiable relations, the action of one tribe undertaking a military offensive against another was unlikely to turn peace into war or to create an enemy. War already existed and the tribe being raided was already an enemy.
In other words, while today we commonly associate the term “offensive warfare” with the start and the cause of a war, in seventh-century Arabia a state of war already existed between the tribes (from time immemorial) and an offensive by one group or another was not necessarily seen as a causal act.
With this abiding state of war in mind, it is clear from the earliest extant Arabic sources that the Prophet adopted a basically offensive approach to Islam’s security, meaning that, aware of the highly competitive nature of Arabia’s peoples and the ever-present threats to his own people, he continually sought opportunities to expand Islam’s power and influence to the greatest extent possible by acquiring additional increases of power at the expense of real and potential rivals. According to this type of logic, the more significant military advantage that the Islamic polity could gain over others, the greater its security would become and the better its prospects would be if attacked. Becoming the only power — if this could be achieved — would mean that rivals would have limited or no ability to create serious security threats or to hold any meaningful oppositional power even if they tried to unite. Peace would emerge and prevail as the status quo.
Added to that, the Prophet was conscious of the value that ruse or bluff played in convincing non-Muslims that Islam was too powerful a force in Arabia to ignore. After all, he frequently said that “war is deception”. If a tribal group observed the power of his military offensives, they might just feel inclined to give this new set of religious beliefs, many of them unfamiliar, far more consideration. Power and military success mattered in the seventh century, and its ability to impress cannot be overstated. The Prophet therefore used or allowed the threat of armed force to convey his seriousness to uncertain or stubborn individuals and peoples.
It was not, of course, usually or even often about inflicting death. The Prophet correctly understood that frightening an enemy into deciding not to fight or behave recklessly was an ideal way of preventing bloodshed on both sides. He felt satisfied that, through resolute and frequent offensive actions, many of them being intended only as casualty-light demonstrations of strength, any potential enemies knew better than to cause serious trouble. He listed his ability “to strike fear into them from as far away as a month of journeying” as one of his unique attributes as a prophet.
Thank you very much for taking time to answer our questions. We wish you every success with this new book, which is your seventeenth book. What are you currently researching and writing?
I have a couple of books on early Islam near to completion. Inshallah the next to appear will be The Diplomacy of Muhammad ﷺ. And in the meantime, I’m continuing the very time-consuming research for a major re-examination of Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Professor Joel, thank you again.
Professor Joel Hayward is Professor of Strategic Thought at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. The opinions he expressed in this interview are his own and do not reflect the views of the Rabdan Academy or the United Arab Emirates government.