A General, a Chronicle of Conquests, a City.

AuthorSkinner, Peter
PositionBook review

Work Title: A General, a Chronicle of Conquests, a City

Work Author(s): Peter Skinner


Byline: Peter Skinner

Religion is an unpredictable factor that makes international policy-making a nerve-wracking process, the more so if it moves toward militancy. For Islam, it's more than just political maneuvering or strategic positioning; it's an attempt to recreate lost centuries of greatness, empire, and dominance. The three first-class books noted here explore different but highly pertinent aspects of Islam's history.

In Muhammad: Islam's First Great General (University of Oklahoma, 288 pages, 12 maps, hardcover, $24.95, 978-0-8061-3860-2), the renowned military historian Richard A. Gabriel brilliantly portrays what might be termed "the unknown Muhammad." Of all religious leaders, Muhammad (570--632) experienced most fully the secular and political world of his day; Buddha had been divorced from secular concerns, Christ had been a pacifist preacher. But Muhammad's credo of war to the knife needed a reliable army. Gabriel emphasizes that the Prophet (a merchant and married man before becoming a religious leader) "created the first army in the ancient world motivated by a coherent religious belief."

Between 623 and 630 Muhammad masterminded his armies in almost constant campaigns within the Arabian peninsula. Though he began with small raids on caravans, complex pitched battles soon followed. The faith-driven Muhammadans ranged against the trader-oligarchs and their tribes, which included the numerous and powerful Quraish. Gabriel's gift of demonstrating how Muhammad drew upon the lessons of victory and defeat to build, finance, and maintain his troops, results in a splendid narrative, one in which much of the delight lies in the details.

The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread of Islam Changed The World We Live In (Da Capo, 422 pages, 33 b/w illustrations, 10 maps, hardcover, $27.95, 978-0-306-81585-0) brings to resonant life the dazzling achievements of the military machine Muhammad created. Professor Hugh Kennedy, the much-published doyen of early Islam, narrates the shattering victories of the small, lightly equipped, and frugally provisioned Arab armies ("naked men, riding without armour or shield") for whom mobility and superior generalship, linked to a burning for-the-glory-of-Allah faith, proved to be irresistible advantages.

Within five years of year of Muhammad's death in 632, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Persian Empire had...

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