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I iI


(Pupem of the Third Workshop on

Lute Antiquity and Early Islam)




Centralized Authority and Military

Autonomy in the Early Islamic

Fred McGraw Donner


I Introduction: Some Thoughts on Centralization

THE HISTORICAI, works of the Islamic tradition portray the early Islamic
conquests as the self-conscious and centrally managed expansion of a new state
in the name of the new faith of Islam. According to this view, commitment to
Islam providctl (hc motive force underlying the conquests. and the Icadcrship
of the early Islxnic community, hcadcd by the Caliphs in Medina, coordinaled
virtually all aspcc~s of the expansion, from the initial rccruitmcnt of troops to
the placcn~cn~ of garrisons of Muslinls following the succcssJu1 conquest of a
This vision of [he Islamic conquesls embraces what we shall call, in
more general terms, the centralization thesis. The main components of this

* I am indcbtcd to the participants in the third Late Andquity and Early Islam workshop, whose
tcrlilc suggestions sncngOicncd this paper immcnscly. and whose criticisms of an cartici
version spurred mc to address some of its main weaknesses. Unfortunately, they arc too
nmncrous for me to singtc out lor individud mention hcrc. I am also gralclut (o Paul M. Cobb
~IIKI Wal(cr 1. Kacgi liar taking the time IO rd c;lrticr tldts and li>r many hctpfut suggestions.
This txrtxr- wits firs1 wrillcn in 1992, Ihcrl rc4scd in cxty t 993 ;uid. slighrly, in early 1093. 111
maklng rcvisiolis, howcvcr, I h;Ivc no( includctl litcralurc appring since 1092, with rhc sole
cxcc*pficm 01. r~tcrcncrs IO lh<* Icviscstl cdi!icul (11 /\IhIc*ch( Nolhs V~rr,//~,,r~/-i/i.\c./~,, S/rrr/ic~r~. cilctl
hcrc as Notlt~Co~l~~~d. (SW II. 22, hctow).

338 Fred McGraw Lhnner Centrulized Authority 339

thesis can be identified as (1) the existence of some central concepts or mission we can speak of the conquests as having displayed comeptual centralization.
motivating the conquerors; (2) the existence of a ruling 6lite dedicated to the If, on the other hand, the various events usually included under the rubric of
principles of these cenlral conccpls; and (3) the cxislcncc of some plan of the Islamic conqucs~ were in fact motivated by different and unrelated causes
expansion in the name of the central concepts; and (4) the capacity of the and were not part of some larger conception, then we can consider the
ruliug dlitc (0 rcalizc Ihc plan 01 osp;lnsi011 lhr~gh clirccl 2nd indirccl conqucsls lo have hccn conccplu;~lly tlcccnlralizcd. (2) Did lhcl-c exist some
mnnmds. gcncral m i l i t a r y ohjcctivcs and sonic gcueral slralcpy (or atraining Ihese
The centraliznlion thesis has been accepted in the main by n~auy modc~~ miLtal-y ohjcclivcs? Or (lo pul it anolhcr way), did the central authorities
scholars, but i( has also been challcngcd, somclinm fu~~d~unc~~c;~lly. by a coordinalc in sonic mcamrc the riclivilies of different war partics on various
variety of revisionist interpretations put forth over the past century or so. The fronts? If so, we can speak of the conquests as having displayed strategic (or
objective of this essay is to consider the cogency of the various interpretations operational) centralization (we shall use either strategic or operational
of. . the conquests_th&hav&gmdvanced by .mod.eLns.cholar~;with particular depending on whether the particular context of which we are speaking focuses
reference to whether the conquests are viewed as centralized or primarily on planning or on implementation). If, on the other hand, the events
decentralized. Before doing so, however, it will be useful to make some of the Islamic conquest represent primarily the fruits of the individual
general observations about the notion of centralization that must be kept in initiative of various war-leaders who acted on their own authority without any
mind when attempting to interpret the evidence [or the early Islamic direction from the centre , then we must speak of the conquests as having
hccri SlKllCgiciilly clccmlr;llizctl. (3) Did lhcl-c cxisl 2 close cculr;ilizcd ct~nlf~~l
01. ili~plcmcnlarion 01 laclics and logistics (01 supply, coninlitnicalions, clc.) on
traditional view of the lslamic conquests, control of the conquest movement by various fronts or in specific encounters with the enemy? If so, we can speak
the Caliphs in Medina. In dealing with historically complex phenomena such of the conquests as having displayed tactical centralization.
as the Islamic conquest, however, the notion of centralization cannot be Certain implications follow u priori from these logical distinctions
envisioned as half of a simple binary polarity, with complete among different degrees or aspects of centralization. One is that absence of
decentralization as its opposite pole. Rather, it must be seen as a continuum. centralization on one level does not necessarily imply an absence of
That is, WC may bc able to envision the Islamic conquesls as falling in general centralizalion on the levels above it; rather, each level must be examined in its
somewhere along a broad spectrum of degrees of centralization. Indeed, we own right. In particular, we must avoid the pitfall of drawing conclusions
will probably need to draw a complex judgment on the issue of centralization, about strategic or conceptual centralization on the basis of evidence that
and to speak of certain aspects of the conquests as being relatively centralized, pertains to tactical matters. It is, for example, all too easy to ridicule the idea
while other aspects are quite decentralized. that the Caliphs in Medina could have controlled every detail of the conquests
Moreover, we must recognize the existence of a hierarchy of levels or unfolding in distant provinces; but lack of Caliphal oversight over details of
aspects of centralization - what, for simplicity, 1 shall term the conceprd, the tactical disposition does not necessarily mean that the Caliphs had no strategic
strategic, and the tucticrrl aspects. These can perhaps best be described by or operational oversight. Nor can it be used as evidence to conclude that the
formulating them as questions: (1) Were the conquests the product of some conquests lacked any unifying conceptual base, that they were not a
centralized or unitary impulse or ideology? Did they have some central movement, but were merely a collection of unrelated incidents that were
source of authority and some broad, overarching goal to which its participants only retrospectively conceived of as parts of a larger whole.
felt thcmsclves bound, even if the latter was perhaps vague or claslic?l If so. Conversely - but, perhaps, somewhat less obviously - we can propose
tlla~ any firm cvidcncc [or- lhc cxislcrrcc of ;I givcu level 01 ccnlr;llizctl conlrol
1 Meaning, hcrc, by broad, that jt trans~~~idcd lhc nilrrow inkrcsL5 of [lNlicll~N itldiVidW~.Y. inescapably implies ~hc cxistcnce of centralized control on all higher levels as
340 Fred Mc(;ruw Donned

well. Coordination by a centralized authority of the activities of separate centralized execution directed, loosely at least, frotn the centre in Medina.2
commanders (operational centralization in realizing a strategic plan), for These interpretations correspond to type III in the typology sketched above.
example, rcquircs that ~hc central authority bc motivntcd by some guiding Modern vet-sions of the ccntralizittg rhcsis, when cotnpared to their
concepts; (hr it is self-cvidcnt char thcrc can bc no coordina1ion ol activities analog in ihc traditional Islamic sources, caii usually bc scctt lo involve
W~II~II a purpose or go;11 in ~hc pursuit of which things arc IO bc coordinated. ad,juslmcnls or shilts 01 emphasis 111;~ mctdi~y it in ways ihal III-C minor, from
hm thcsc considerations it bccmncs clear lhl lhcrc iwc only foul rhc poittl of view 0I our attalysis, howcvcr rcvolulionary they may hc in olhcl
logically valid types of interprctalion for any conqucs~ IIWVC~IC~I. In order of respects. 1%~ cxmnplc, ~hc notion char the movcmcn( was sparked by some
increasing degrees of centralization, they arc: motivalinp concept or mission may be adopted, but in some cases the nature
I. No centruli~atiorz is jbund or1 the conccptd. .v!ru!egic, or tactid (but not the cxistcncc) of that mission is called into question: where the Islamic
levels. That is, the character of the conquest as a coordinated movemeqt is tradition sees the motivating factor as the pure early Islam, others may adduce
denied. political or other tnotivations instead.3 These interpretations, then, emphasize
II. Conceptual centrulization is present, hut neither strutegic or tuctical the importance of conceptual centralization, and usually follow the Islamic
centralization is found. In other words, there is a general commitment to some sources also in seeing a large tneasure of strategic (operational) centralization.
common idea or doctrine, but there is either no unified leadership IO The issue of tactical centralization is usually not raised explicitly, or is not
implement it, or no effective mechanisms of implementation available lo 111~ dealt with in depth, and ~1% far as I know no modern interpretation has
lcadcrship. ImpIctncnl;~tion is, in other words, totally haphazard, and untlcr proposed thrill lhc Islamic conqucsls displayed cotiq~lclc (IXipltal cotilrol 011
Ihc free con[rol of indcpcndcnt local cotntnandcrs acting in lhc name ol it SCI hOIll lhc str-alcgic ;ttttl (ilctic;tl ICVCIS (lypc IV), ill~hOttgl1 tk Islatiiic lcttliliort
of common concepts, but without any coordination among them and as each itself roulincly suggcsls Ihis.
interpreted the dictates of those concepts on his own. Already in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however,
Ill. Cmceptual centralization and strategic centruliznrion are present, some western authors were raising objections to certain aspects of the
bL(t riot tuctical centrulization. According to this scheme, the leadership of the centralizing thesis of the type 111 variety. Building on the work of Hugo
movement is able to mobilize subordinate forces and shape general strategic Winkler, for example, Leone Caetani advanced the view that the expansion of
policy in the name of the unifying concepts. Arab rule was largely I& result of ecological fnc(ors - particularly clitnatic
IV. Cetttrulizution is jbmd nrz all levels - r.onscptrtrrl. strategic, am1
tucticuI. Virtually every aspect of the conquest is controlled and managed from
the ccntrc by the ruling clilc. * See, lw cxamplc, Carl i~rockcln~an~l, Ilismy of t/w I.t/nrtric P~~opl~~,s (New York, I SO),
49-62 [C&man original lY3Y]: Laura Vcccia-Vaglicri, TIC Patriarchal and Umayyad
Let us now review some salient interpretations of the early Islamic Caliphates, in The Cambridge His/o,:\: NJIslum 1 (Catnbridgc, 197(I), 58-60; Marshall G. S.
conquests to see where they stand in relation to this logical typology. Hodgson, The Ventura ~?f Isl~rn (Chtoago, 1974), I, 200-21 1: Fred M. Donncr, T/ze Ear!?
Islamic Corq~~~~.rts (Prmccton, 1981); Hugh Kennedy, The Prophrt md the Age of the
Caliphates (London, lYH6), 59; John Walter Jandora, Thr Murch from Medim: N Revisiorrist
(CliKtc~n, N.J., 1990).
Study qfthe Ar06 Conqrwsts
3 Among the most striking cases of this is Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. Hogarism
(Cambridge, 1977). Radical as the religious implications ol the book arc, howcvcr. it
nonetheless sees the conquests as the result or implementing a central mission.
4 Jandora, The Lurch corn Medim, pays more altcnlion than most works to maltcrs of military
II. Divergent Interpretations: a Typology la&s and organizati& A few general comments are offered by Muhammad Abd al-Halim
A significant nutnbcr 01 modern inict-prclcrs 01 (IIC early Islamic ~OII~~~I~SIS Ahii Gha2/.51a, Al-IlrJi~~il~~it trl- ?I/-trlt<ytr II/- rc:rlrfi fi .xutir trl-i.~l51~: tiirkri (III /irrrlr trl-!rtrrh rrl-
c~rc&T (Cairo, 1403/1983), 33-47 (on weaponry) and 48-52 (on military organization), hut
have accepted the main outlines of the traditional Jslamic centralizing thesis. tlcspilc its suhtittc this wotk ollcrs virtually no analysis of military otganization or its
holding to the general notion of a se! of central tnotivating concepls and :I dcvcloplllctlc
342 Fred McGraw Dcmrzer Centrrrlizrd Authority 343

change and population increase - which resulted in economic distress and conquest movement that was, in their view, more scientific.7 On the other
consequent emigration.5 This ecological thesis, as we may term it, proved hand, seeing the conquests primarily as an Arab conquest neatly glosses over
very popular, and was embraced by many later writers. A typical expression the fact that the conquests began with the forcible sub,jugation of many
of it is the following passage by a leading scholar from a book intended for a Arabian (ribcs by the Mcdincsc Icatlcrship.
gcncral audicncc: Initially the great co~iqucsls WCI-c au expansion no1 of Islam Ihcrc i s ;I a l s o ;I dccpc~- problem inhcrcnt i n such hybrid
but of fhc Arab nation, driven by the prcssurc of over-l~ol~ul;~liorl iu ils native in(crprctntioris. St!-ippctl IO its csscnlials, ltlc ccologic~~l lhcsis is rMhing less
peninsula to seek an outlet in the neighboring countries. It is one or the series than the denial that a mission or central set of concepts played any causative
of migrations which carried the Semites time and again into the Fertile r8le in the lslamic conquests - it asserts, aflcr all, that ttic conyucsts wcr-e
Crescent and beyond.6 According to the ecological thesis, the early Caliphs really generated by population pressure and other historical and economic
were merely riding the tiger of the expansion of the Arab peoples, over which forces rather than by conceptual factors. That is, the ecological thesis belongs
they had little real control, at least at the outset. It is for this reason that lo type I in our typology of interpretations. The coordination of strategy,
proponents of the ecological thesis often prefer to speak of the Arab dispatch of commanders, and other operational features, on the other hand,
conquests, rather than the Islamic conquests. The view that the conquests belong to what we have termed strategic centralization, which is found only in
were essentially more Arab than Islamic was partly rooted in the interpretations of type III or IV. Yet, we have shown in the preceding section
observation of an undeniable fact, that the conquests were not carried OUI that the existence of s&ate&l c and operational centralization logically requires
primarily to secure the religious conversion to Islam of the conqucrcd lhc cxistcncc of conccplt~;il ccl~li.nliz;llion. l-lybrid intcrprclalions that combine
populations, at Icast beyond the Arabian peninsula. I:or-, as is wctt knowrt, 111~ an ecological thesis with soiiic clcmcn& of ttic cciltralizatiorl thusis sccln lo Inc.
conquerors were content to collect tribute from non-Muslim religious in other words, to embrace a fatal contradiction, for the two theses are
communities outside Arabia that tendered their submission, and to leave them logically incompatible. The hybrid ecological-centralizing interpretation, in
free to continue in their former faiths. short, does not conform to any of the four logically valid typological variants,
Many - indeed, almost all - of the scholars who adopted the ecological and must be rejected, This does not mean that ecological factors played no
thesis to explain the Islamic conquests continued to adhere to aspects of the part in the events of the conquest era, but in dealing with them we must either
centralization thesis; for example, they often continued to describe how the embrace the ecological thesis whole-heartedly and dispense entirely with any
Caliphs dispatched forces, coordinated strategy, and mobilized resources for talk of centralized control by the Caliphs over what is usually called the Arab
the conquests, while positing ecological factors as the underlying cause of the or lslamic conquests, or rcducc ecological factors to the role of suppoi-ting
conquests. That is, they seem to have introduced the ecological thesis as a kind elements abetting the process of Arab migrations once the conquests had
of modification of the centralization thesis, rather than as a total repudiation already begun.X
of it, perhaps feeling that it provided a way to explain the origins of the

7 For cxamplc, Philip K. Hitti, Ifictory of the, Aroh.~ (8th cd., London, 1964). or Lewis, 7%~
5 Leone Caetani, Studi di Stork Orientale I (Milan, 191 I), 133-38, 369-7 1; restated with, il Arubs in History, 55, who speaks of the conquest both as a migration of the Arab nation and as
anything, greater force by Henri Lammens, Le berceau de 1Islant (Rome, 1914), 117-21 and something in which the Arab leadership employed conscious strategy and provided
174-77. A variant of the ecological thesis is dcvelopcd in M. A. Shaban, Islamic History AD. rcinlorccmcnts and supplies for their trips. See also Franccsco Gahricli, M~rhtrr~~tntrd trnd tllr
600-750 (AH. 132); (I New Interpretation (Cambridge, 197 1). Hc argues that Muhammads Conquests OS Islam (New York, 1068); Shaban, lslrrrGc History; Edmond Rabbalh, LN
activities crcatcd an economic rcccssion that forced the Arabs to raid ncighbouring lcrrilorics. conqui?tr orobe soc~.s les quotre pmiers ccrljjk.s (I l/632-40/661) (Beirut, 1 YXS), I, 13-26, who
resulting in their unintentionally acquiring an cmpirc (p. 14). For further discussion or Lhcac SW ccok!gical factors in combinafion wilh the new faith of Islam as dccisivc.
thcol-ics, see Donncr, Early lslanric C~~rrquests, 3-7. * I have olfiircd 11101-c dclailcd oljcctions to sonic 01 Llic spccil~ic assimrptitrr~s of the ccotogical
6 Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (rev. cd., New York, lY60), 55-56. Lhcsis in 77~ Eurly Iskornic Conquests, 3-8.
344 Fred McGruw Donner Centrulized Authority 345

Very few scholars have chosen the first option and attempted to discard historiographical myth, created during the first few Islamic centuries, that was
the centralizaGon thesis in all its aspects; as WC have seen, many atlcmpkd to projected back onto a set of historical events that were much more haphazard,
rcconcilc nspccls of Ihc ccntraiizing view with Ihc ccolo~ic~~i thesis. l-kccntly, unplanned, md accitlcntal than titc COII~UCS~ t r a d i t i o n s w o u l d have u s
ilowclvcr-, Ihcrc h a s ~~ppcxctf ;I radically rcvisionisl view 01 Ihc* Isl;~i~liC bclicvc. I0 011~ is rerl~indcti hcrc of lhc rcccrtl rcvisionisl inlcrprctalion of the
c011q11csts rl1a1 WC cm call IilC ocY.idPn/r// rimis. II cicarly IKlongs among rypc I Dorian invasions in Grcccc 1ha1 views ~hcm not as the immigration and
interpretations. Its proponents not only deny that the cvculs of Ihc conquest couqucsl by a new group, but as a retrospective tlisloriographicai myth crcaled
(as related in the traditional sources) were coordinated by the Caliphs as pcart to cxpiain the emcrgcnce to prominence in various parts of Greece of oncc-
of a cohcrcni movcmcnl; rhey also deny the cxisrcncc of any ccntraiizing lowly pcopics.
concepts or mission and doubt that many of the major events of the conquest, The question of what mission or concepts, if any, mobilized the
as related in the traditional sources, took place at all. This position is clearly conquests is a vitally important one, but is properly beyond the scope of this
staked out in a recent article, whose authors, on the basis of seventh-century volume, which focuses on the problem of states and their material
Syriac, Greek, and Armenian sources, conclude that the local sources written infrastructure in the transition from late antiquity to early Islam. Tactical
before the early eighth century provide no evidence for a plumed invasion of centralization, on the other hand, given the prevailing conditions of the
Arabs from the Peninsula, nor for great battles which crushed the Byzantine conquest era, is neither expected nor likely to have characterized the
army; nor do they mention any Caliph bcforc MuSwiyah....Thc piclurc the conquests. This only I!:aves the question of strategic and operational
contemporary literary sources provide is rather of raids of the familiar Cypc; ccntralizalion, which is ccnlral (0 lhc prcscn( volunics locus, so wc shall
the raiders stayed because they louncl no military opposiriou.... (W ]hat took rcskl our rcmairiing c01nmcnIs lo (tic problcni of strnkgic ccu(ralizalior~ in
place was a series of raids and minor engagements, which gave rise to stories the early lslamic conquests, taking it for granted for the moment [hat there
among the Arab newcomers of How We Beat the Romans; these were late] was some kind of conceptual basis underlying rhe conquest movement, even if
selected and embellished in late Umayyad and early AbbZisid times to form an we are not yet sure exactly how we wish to characterize it. Our focus here on
Official History of the Conquest.) According to this more radically strategic centralization is justified, moreover, because most of the interpreters
revisionist view, t h e v e r y n o t i o n o f a c o n q u e s t m o v e m e n t i s a n of the conquests to date have assumed the existence of motivating concepts, but
____~___ .__ .__-_ disagreed sharply on the degree of strategic ant! operational centralization.
) J. Korcn and Y. Ncvo, Mcrllcrdolo~ic~~l Approaches to Islamic Studies. I>or /.r/cr/rl 6X Just how much operational control did the Caliphs have over the events of the
(IYY I), 87-101, at 100. See also Moshc Sharon. The 13irlh 01. Islam in the Holy I,;rnd, in conqucsls unloiding throughout the Near East.I in what mcasul-c were the
Sharon (cd.), Pilltrrs qf Slnoko rrr~t/ i;irc~ I/I<, H o l y Ltrr~d iu Ilistory IIJIC/ Thought
(Johanncshurg. IX%), 2X-3.5, tsp. 2X-27. who argues that Islam had no unilicd
beginning, and may have had scvcral prophcls. and suggosls thal local communities of
mu rrtincin (believers) simply scizcd ~OWCI- when the Byzaniinc and Sasania~ empires I0 The mosl tlclaikxi analysis of the histol-iogr;rphical problems of the conclucsi Iitcralurc arc Ihc
collapsed. Even in some of the older literature, however, WC lind suggestions that lhc first works OP Albrccht Noth cited in n. 22. below. Nolh is not as skcolical about the basic cvcnts
steps in the conquest may have been, csscndally, accidental; Carl Heinrich Bcckcrs magisterial of the conquest as, say, Karen and N&o arc; but Noth has made ihe clcarcsl statement of the
essay Die Ausbrcitung dcr Arahcr. in his Islrrrt~st~~rlien, I (Leipzig, 1924), 70, cxprcsscs this salvation-historical character of the conclucsr tradition. It may lx, however. that Korcn and
idea, as does H&i, Historv qfthe Arcdx. 8th cd., 144-45, although Hilti introduces Islam as a Ncvo pursue some implications of Noths ideas, cvcn hcyond the point intended by Noth:
conceptual factor. conlcnding that it lorccd Arab tribes lo slop raiding one another, and so Noths gcncral rcconslruction of the LIVVI~.S (as opposed to the historiography) of early Islamic
helped redirect their raids outward. Walter E. Kacgi, Jr. has pointed out lo mc that - pncv hislory can bc lound in his chapter Friihcr Islam, in Ulrich Haarmann. cd.. Gr.schid~/c~ dc/
Koren and Nevo - some local sources written, at the latest, at the very beginning of the nrcdkchen Welt (Miinchcn: C. 1-l. Beck, 19X7), I l-100. On the other hand, even a scholar as
eighth ccnlury C.E. (end first century AH.) do make refcrcncc lo m@)r battles of lhc conquest generally traditional in his orientation as Hitti (History of the Arabs, 145) pointed out parallels
era, notably Anastasius the Sinaitc, Semo crdvcmus Monothcletm (cd. Karl-Heinz Ulhemann, between the conquest accounts and Biblical salvation history.
Turnhout, lY85), 60 (paras. 3.1.86-8X); on the date ol this work, see John Haldon, The II A convcnicnl summary of the various inkrprctations in this dchak, with rcccnl
Works ol Anastasius ol Sinai, in Avcril Cameron and Lawrcncc I. Conrad, cds., 7hc bibliography, is proviticd in Jean-Nicolzis Corvisicr. A1r.r 0rigirrr.y tlrr ruirclclv ,qf~vc
Byzuntinr and IGuly I.vk~~lnic Nrm, IG.r/ I: Pr~~l~lemr in IMP Likrmr-y Source Mn/c,titri (Princeton, P~I~~~PI~II/ et popultr/iorl CII GrZcr drr Nod (Paris, l991), 7-16. The closcs~ parallel is
N.J., 1992), 107.47, al I13 (personal communicalion, Wallcr 6. Kacgi, Jr.). perhaps Itic intcrprcVation advanced by Sharon, lhc Bird1 01 Islam in lhc I ioly I,and.
346 Fred McGraw Dormer Cenlrulized Authority 341

conquests of various provinces the result of conscious strategic policies mounts, between Medina and the armies in Iraq or Syria.13 Such rates would
implemented by the ruling klite, and in what measure were they the make it possible for couriers from Syria to reach Medina and bring a reply in
scrcIIdipilous ~onscquimxs of u~tco~~lrollctl IrilxIl raitiillg p;irlics or the action a week or CVCII Ic>ss. ccrlninly cluickly enough t o take cart o f gcncral
01 forces con~rollcd hy essentially autonomous war- lcadcrs. acting OJI thei] operational coordination. Obviously, tight Caliphal control of all details on all
own initiative and for their own purposes, and not for those 01~ lhc Caliphs Uld fronts w o u l d bc out ol the yucstion, but broader strategic planning and
lhc nascent Islamic state! It is to a considcrntion of thcsc issues that we must operational oversight is not thereby ruled out.
now turn. In any case, lhc colilriiiirlicatioris timc-lag Iacctl by lhc cal-ly Islamic
state certainly compares favorably with later colonial ventures such as the
III. Problems of Strategic and Organizational Centralization Portuguese or British expansions in the Indian Ocean. Both were carried out
The notion that the conquests displayed a significant measure of strategic and by forces operating on the basis of general orders in an environment where
operational centralization is, as we have seen, crucial to the traditional communications and news required months to reach home base in Europe, but
interpretations of the conquests. Three different objections have been raised there can be no doubt that the Portuguese colonies in Asia and the British
to this notion. They are the difficulty of communications, the case of Amr occupation of India were, in at least strategic terms, sanctioned and in some
ibn al-& and his role in the conquest of Egypt, and - by far the most measure coordinated from Lisbon and London; they were not, at any rate,
complex - a general historiographical critique of the conquest narratives. l,cr accidental occupations und!:rtaken by free-wheeling commanders completely
us look at each in turn. rlnhcknownst to higher authorities in Europe, however loose the latters day-
l o - d a y knowledge o f a n d c o n t r o l OVCJ- operations must hsvc been.
A. Communications during the Conquests. Communications limitations demanded that Muslim commanders in the field
The difficulty (real or assumed) of communications in the early handle many situations that arose as they saw fit, and we may, with Noth, wish
medieval period is sometimes taken as a reason why the conquests could nol to lake a sceptical view of reports of lengthy negotiations between
have been, in operational terms, a centralized movement, since strategic and commanders in the field and Caliphs in Medina arising out of specific local
operational centralization would require the Caliphs to be able to communicate situations during the conquest. But operational coordination of a broadly
with their commanders with some efficiency. Noth, for example, has argued conceived strategy for the Islamic conquests by the Caliphs in Medina
that the early Muslims lacked this capacity, stating that it would take 20 days certainly seems to have been Leasible given the prevailing communications of
for messengers to cover the 1000 km separating Mcdina from the fronts in the day.
Syria and Iraq, so that a single exchange of letters would require forty days
time and a complex negotiation many months.12 R. Amr ibn ul- & and the Conquest of Egypt.
It is, however, hardly unreasonable to assume that a fast messenger A few of the accounts about the invasion of Egypt by Amr ibn al-& describe
could cover the distance of 1000 km in less than twenty days. Musil relaccs him as having acted entirely on his own authority, and some scholars have
instances in which riders were able to cover 300 km in roughly sixteen hours, taken these accounts to be vestiges of an archaic layer of tradition reflecting
and even more rapid communications can be imagined if we assume that thr
early Muslims maintained a few courier posts, with fresh riders and fresh, fasr

I hlois Musil, Northern Nt>~d (New York, 1028), 145. William Lancaster of the British
htsliltrtc al hr~rnan rccounlcd rcphls, dating Ir-om the hcgirming 01 the [wcnticth cctilul-y, of ;I
hsl camel lravc~iing from Ihmasc~~s Lo al-Jawf ill 24 hours -~ a distance of 600 km. (conuncnl
12 Noth, Quellenkritische Stden, 72.80, esp. 72-73; Noth-Conrad, 7X-80. during Workshop discussions.)
348 Fred McGraw Dormer Ccmtrulized Authority 349

lack of centralized Caliphal coordination of the conquests.14 This point to, the independent raiding of the Iraqi countryside by al-Muthanns ibn
interpretation rests on Ihe observation that later Islamic tradition had a @ritha and tribesmen of Shayban, is really quite different from the case of
tCIlCil!llcy IO cx;lggCr;lfc the tlcgrcc of ccntraiizcd c.onlroI cll.joyed b y (he Amr ibn al-/l,s. I+x one thing, it is INN clear thnt al-MlIIhilnn%. when he
Caliphs - what WC can call the ccn(ralizing bias. 15 Ciivcu the cxislcncc o f cmbnrkcd WI his raiding, bad any formal rclaliorlship with the Islamic state: hc
Ihis c.urHr;llizing hi;ls, i t i s ;~l-~Ucd. ilIly s u r v i v i n g ;~CcOtllltS 1hAt Sl\OW 8 aplxxrs in Illany xxx)unlS nicrcly lo bc il IOCill Ii-ihal chicliain who Wits raiding
Arnr ilm al-As -- acting intic1~cntic~~liy nlrlsl bc
commandcl- - i n t h i s c;~sc, an alca ;~dj;~ccuI lo his Ir;~dilior~;ll Iribal lcr-rilory. IX III tl)is hc s~aucls irl rnarkctl
older than the appearance of this centralizing bias, a n d IHmx must reflect contrast lo Anlr, who according to cvcry account had hecn appointed by the
more closely the original conditions prevailing in the conquest era. Caliph to lead an army composed of men drawn from many tribes into
A closer look at these accounts suggests, however, that they provide territories far from their own homelands (and certainly distant from Amrs
only dubious or ambiguous evidence for a lack of strategic centralization. native town, Mecca). Whereas Amr may have been an insubordinate agent of
The assumption that accounts relating Amrs independence of action antedate the state, in other words, al-Muthanng was an outsider - albeit one whose
the centralizing bias ignores the fact that there were some historiographical raiding activity, in close proximity to the campaigns of Khalid ibn al-Walid
circles in late Umayyad times that wer.e glad to paint Amr as a villain,16 and into Iraq, was soon co-opted by the Islamic state. 19
once the centralizing bias was current, accounts portraying Amr as acting on An episode from Amrs jater history in Egypt also raises doubts about
his own and in defiance of Caliphal authority would be just right for SUC]~ the cogency of the ar;:ument that his invasion of the country reflects his
vilification. For this reason, the ccntralizcd versions of the invasion 01 unbridled autonomy as a military commander. Had Amr in fact acted entirely
Egypt - in which Amr invades on Ulnars orders, rather than on his OWII on his own, with no Caliphal approval or control, one might expect that iI
authority - may well be just as old as, or even older than, the accounls in would bc impossible to dislodge him thereafter from the province rhar was,
which he invades Egypt on his own. 17 11 is Ihcrcforc very risky to claim thal aflcr all, in sonic sense his privalc conqucsl. Aims donGim1 ri,lc in ruling
these accounts about Amrs independence reflect an old tradition based on an Egypt after its conquest is well-known, of course; yet the Caliph Uthmsn did
historical reality of decentralization. relieve him of his post as governor of Egypt (replacing him with his own
In any case, even if Amr did invade Egypt on his own, we must still ask foster-brother, AbdallZh ibn Sad ibn Abi Sarh. Moreover, UthmBn was
whether Amrs presumed indepcndcncc of action can be taken to reflect a apparently able lo do so without undue difficulty - certainly no military force
general lack of strategic or operational centralization. Might it not have been was needed to make Amr relinquish his posilion. The fact that Amr
a particular case of disobedience, and if so, is it reasonable to take it as obviously resented the measure, and complained openly about it, makes all the
characteristic of the whole conquest movement? Is it not misleadmg to more significant the fact that the Caliph could replace him as viceroy over
generalize from this one example of military autonomy - assuming that it is an Egypt.20 Indeed, if we wish to find an example of an individual and his
example? For, we find reports of such independence or defiance of Caliphal descendants thoroughly entrenched in a province during and immediately
authority for no other commander of the early conquest period on any other
front - and there were many of them. The only apparent parallel we might I* On al-Muthannz and his raiding set EI2, S.V. al-Muthann% h. IjBritha (F. M. Donncr):
Dormer, Eurly Islamic Conquests, 181; idern, The Bakr b. W%ii Tribes and Politics in
Norlheastem Arabia on the Eve of Islam, Studia Lrlanzica 5 I (1980), 30, 34-35.
14 The most detailed analysis is again found in Noth, Quelienkritische Studjell, 162-64; Noth Iy There do exist accounts in which al-MuthannS is said to have come to Medina before
Conrad, 1 X2-X4. engaging in any raiding in order to seek the caliphs permission to do so. In this case,
IIOWCVC~, I suspect that s u c h a c c o u n t s m a y ix later creations rcllccting the raps of
5 See hclow. wnlr;~lization.
I~I I$ling Ixlcwig IckXsCIl. 7l/i We/ MU m;~ in I3rlv hfhif~ Tdirifm (Odc~isc, 1974 lorip
19fj4]), cspccially 33-34, 45, 4X-49, 53-54. It i\ colivciiicnt overview ol lhc cvcuts i s pov~dcd ill k12, S.Y.
hr b. a-
& (A. J.
17 I plan to provide a more detailed analysis of the Amr traditions in a ScparalC study. Wcnsinck).
350 Fred McGrurv Dormer Centrulized Autlrnrit~~ 351

following the Islamic conquests, the best example is probably that of Syria - the existence of this centralizing bias. Let us select one example at random by
conquered, according to traditional sources, by several armies, one of which way of illustration - a relatively lengthy account coming via Ibn Is&q (d. 15 I
was Icd by the Umayyad Yazid ibn Abi Sufy311, who bccamc ils firsi govcrnor; A.H.). allcgcdly 011 rhc ollimalc arrrhority of an cycwittlcss to tlic curly Islamic
and governed, after Yazids death, by his younger brother Mu?iwiya. campaigns in Egypt under the corntnand of Amr ibn al-ii~.*4lhis account
However, the implications of the Unlayyads long tcnurc of this governorship relates how Anirs Ibrccs conquered villages surrounding Alexandria and
for the question of central authority and local autonomy arc clouded by the describes Amrs negotiations with the master of Alcxar~dria2~ to establish
Lact that the Caliph Uthman (r. 644-56 C.13.) wx ASO ~111 UIn~~yyi\tl. :111d hence Ihc Icrms according IO which the cily was broughl unticr Muslim rule. II
not inclined to challenge Mugwiyagrip on Syria as he had challenged Amrs contains, however, many hints that it is a composition of rclntively late date
control of Egypt, since he relied so heavily on his kinsmans support. and of Egyptian origin. For example, the master of Alexandria addresses
the Muslims using terms that reflect a sharp conceptual opposition between
C. The General Historiographical Critique. Muslims and Christians, and between Arabs on the one hand and Byzantines
Another challenge to the centralization thesis rests predominantly on and Persians on the other: I used to pay the jit!,a to parties who were more
historiographical arguments and analysis. It has long been argued that the odious to me than you are, oh company of Arabs - to Persia and Byzantium.
traditional Islamic sources present a vision of early Islamic history, including Such sharp distinctions along these lines seem more likely to hail from the
the early conquests, that is idealized and shaped to fit later dogmatic needs.21 context of second-ctrntury A.H. Islamic juristic usage, however, rather than
Ihc conquest narratives in particular have been made the sub.jcct of dctnilctl from Ihc mouth of a non-Muslim figure of the cnrty scvcnth ccnfury. The>
analysis by Atbrecht Noth. 22 Noth has demonstrated beyond rcasonablc doubl sa~nc can bc said ol. 111~ accoun~s systematic untlcrstanding ol,;iz~ IO mean II
that many narrative sources for early Islamic history are imbued with a head tax, which accords with later juristic usage but not with what
marked tendency to present events - especially the events of the conquest - as documentary sources reveal about the first Islamic century.26 This is
centrally planned and regulated. 23 Even a cursory review of the traditional reinforced by the accounts depiction of Egyptian captives being given theit
accounts about the Islamic conquests provides one with examples that confirm free choice to embrace Islam or to remain Christian and pay ,jizTa - thus
justifying collection of,~iz,vu by the state not on grounds of mere conquest, but
on grounds of the personal choice of those sub.jected to the lax. Likewise, the
2 This view goes at least as far back as lgnaz Goldzihcr; see his Muhtr~~lr~r~tirrrri.s~lf~ Studietl 2 accounts pronounced emphasis on establishing the tax status of the conquered
(Hallc. 1890), 5 [= Mus(irtl Studie.v, 2 (transl. by S. M. Stern, London, 1971 ), IYl. districts via what has come to bc known as ~nl(r- anwa traditions is certainly
22 Especially his monograph Quel!enkr.iti.sche Studiefz . 71,
. Thrmert, Forrmw, rrrrd Tendenzen
friihislamischen Geschichtsiiberlieferung. Teil I: Themen und Formen. (Bonn, 1973) (=The
Early Arabic Historical Tradition: a Source-Critical Study. Second edition in collaboration with
Lawrence I. Conrad. Translated by Michael Bonnet-, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam
2, Princeton, 1994) (cited as Noth-Conrad). See also Noths articles Dcr Charakter der
ersten grofien Sammlungen von Nachrichten, Der Islam 47 (1971), 168-199; IsfahIn-
2< The account is in al-Tabari, Tcr r&h (I/-r-usul W-I-rrnllrrk, cd. M. J. dc Gocjc et cl/. (Lcidcn.
Nihawand. Eine qucllcnkritische S&die zur frilhislamischen Historiographic, ZDMG 118
1879-1901) I, 2581-84 iisrl&k Ibn qumayd - Salama - Ibn Ishsq - al-Q%& ibn QuzmHn. a
(1968), 274-96; Zum Verhlltnis von Kalifate; Zentralgewalt und Provinzen in Umayyadischcr man of Egypt - ZiyLd ibn Jaz al-Zubaydi).
Zeit. Die Sull$- Anwa-Traditionen filr Agypten und den Iraq, Die W$t des !slan,?s 14
(1973), 150-62; Die literarisch liberlieferten VertrIge der Eroberungszelt als hlstorlschc 25 Sdhib al-lskandariya. It is not clear who this master was: perhaps the Coptic bishop of
Quellen fiir die Behandlung der unterworfenen Nicht-Muslims durch ihrc neucn muslimischea Alcx&dria, or the Byzantine official known as thepraefecm augustalis, the effective civil ruler
Oberherrn, in Tilman Nagel et al., Studien urn Minderheitenproblem im Islam I (Bonn. of Byzantine Egypt?
1973), 282-314. 2h On the confused tax practices in early Islamic Egypt, see Daniel C. Dennctt, Jr., Conwwinr~
z3 The most explicit formulation is in Noth, Dcr Charaktcr dcr crsten grol3en Sammlungcll crud the Poll Tax in Early Islam (Cambridge, MA, 1950), 65-l 15: Jorgen Bzk Simonscn;
y()n Nachrichkx. I [is elcP/lenk~irisc/?e ,~/dirn is hasctl on Ihc ;tssttmplion thal Ihc Iradilional
~Si;lrrdicr in thy Gn1~si.v m&l Earl,* O(~~rplo~)t~~ptlt or tlw Cdiphnl To.wtiorr Swt~rrr (Copcrl hagcn.
sources cxaggcralc the dcgrcc of centralization. Cf. Noth, euel/Pnkritisch~, Sfdic~, 53-54, 57. 19X%), 7% I.1 I ; Kosci M~irrroto, 7%~ /~i.wrl Atlrrrirlis/~rrtiorl 01 f$pyt ;,I t/w IGII-IJ Isl~~~nic~
75-76, 174-181; Noth-Conrad 56-57, 61, 81-82, 196-204. h~riod (Kyoto, 198 1).
352 Fred McGraw Donner Centralized Authority 353

the product of later juristic thought. 27 Finally, the ,account presents all clear, for example, that the centralizing bias is very prominent in the arena of
decisions, even relatively minor ones, as having been referred back to the tax arrangements, where, as we have seen from the example just given, the
Caliph. As Amr is made to say when the master ol Alcxantlria conl;~cls him first Caliphs and their commanders are portrayed as imposing systematic
with an offer to pay .jiz?jn if Amr returns captives already taken from taxation rcgimcs on conquered arcas in a way that is belied by surviving
Alexandrias territory, I~ehind me is a commander [rrmrr] without whose documentation. Whether the accounts about other aspects of the conquests are
permission I cannot do anything. So the master of Alexandria and Amr so thoroughly affcctcd by the centralizing bias, however, rctnains to be
agree lo II ccasc-fire until ;1 messenger can bc sent IO the Caliph and his considered. In the rcmainder of this section, therefore, we shall examine
response received. The Caliphs reply, when it comes, betrays too many later briefly a number of different kinds of accounts that, like accounts about
legal concerns of the kind mentioned above, and too much awareness of the taxation, have a bearing on the question of strategic centralization and the
later history of the Muslim community, to be plausible as an authentic range of validity of this centralizing bias.
document of the conquest period. One obvious indicator of a measure of centralized operational control of
We would have to be credulous indeed to take at face value rhis account, the conquests is coordination by the Caliphs of activities on different fronts.
which appears lo be not, in fact, an eyewitness report dating from the conquest The traditional sources provide us with many examples of suchcoordination:
period but a working-through of later fiscal and religious concerns within the Khalid ibn al-Walids march from Iraq to Syria, the veterans of Yarmdk
Islamic juristic tradition, fitted into the context of sotne very general joining the Muslim forces at al-Q8disiya in Iraq, the troops of southern Iraq
understandings or commonly accepted notions of what had happened during marching north to joi; their fellows at al-Qgdisiya,2* or the veterans of Syria
the conquest period. In other words, some widely known fncl, such ;IS lhal being scnl l o rwrlhcrn Syr-i;i and lhc .lazira.29 Relalctl IO lhcse a r c m:my
Amr ibn al-& had led the Muslim conquerors into Egypt, was utilized to accounts that portray the Caliphs sending reinforcements or supplies to
provide a plausible framework on which to hang material that ground the late various commanders or fronts. I:or example, some accounts say that the
first and early second-century jurists axes. Accounts of this kind, which Caliph Umar reinforced Amr shortly after he entered Egypt by dispatching a
abound in the narrative literature about the conquests, do se&m to me to be supporting force under al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwgm.30 Others describe the
best explained as products of later legal thought, and they fit very well into Caliph Uthmsn arranging for reinforcements to go to Armenia from both
Noths picture of the workings of an historiographical topms of Syria and Iraq in response to a request from the military cotnmander in
centralization. Armenia, Habib ibn Maslama al-Fihri. 31 Similarly, the Caliph Umar is said
While accepting the existence of a centralizing bias, however, we shuuld to have sent sheep and camels from the Hi.jgz to provision the Muslims at al-
not allow ourselves unwittingly to adopt an all-or-nothing attitude about
centralization. That is, the existence of the later centralizing bias does not
necessarily mean that the conquests themselves displayed no centralization; to 28 On these, see rcspcctivcly Donncr, Eurly I.slmtic Corrqwsts, 119-27, 207 and nn. 193 and
argue thus is to fall into the trap of seeing centralization as a simple binary 194 to chapter 4 (with many references), and 339 and n. 195 to chapter 4.
polarity. Rather, we should consider the possibility that what the centralizing 29 Recently noted in Walter E. Kaegi, Byzar7riurn und the L?uJ$ Islamic Conquests (Cambridge,
1992), 149, with references to the mair;sources.
bias does is to exaggerate the degree of centralization during the conquests, 30 Al-Tabari, I, 2084 (isrtiid: Sayf - Abii Uthman Yazid ibn Asid al-Ghassgni - Khalid ibn
and to exaggerate it perhaps in specific arenas only and not in others. It seems Mad& and UbBda ibn Nusayy); Ibn Asakir, Turikh rnudfrznt Dimushq, photographic
tcproduction of Z2hiriya library manuscripts (AmmHn, cn. 1988), XIII, 514, lines 9%. (isniid:
KhaIiPa - al-Walid ibn His&m al-Ajrami - his father - his grandfather, and Abdall%h ibn al-
Mughira his rather and uthcrs).
I On this cpisodc WC Najda Khanin+A. Al-SlrlT~rr /T SII(~I. rrl-l.t/G/rr (I~an~~~scus. 10X7). 107.
354 Fred McGraw Donner Centralized Authority 35.5

Qadisiya in Iraq. 32 Careful study of these and many other similar traditions is Similarly, there exist accounts that describe the Caliphs exercising some
needed to decide whether they represent a tendency to exaggerate the degree measure of restraint on the ambitions of governors, commanders, and their
of cooi-dinalion analogous IO 111~ centralizing bins, and intcndctl prcciscly to troops. Mui?wiya, or cxmnplc, as governor or Syria, pctitioncd Ulnar to ICI
convey the false impression that there was some coordination among diLfcrent him make raids by sea, but the Caliph resisted this suggestion for some time
fronts, or whether they rcflcct, in some dcgrce. the actual conditions of the and refused to permit naval raids against, among other targets, Cyprus.36
conquest period.-. 33 Ii Caliphal coordination and reinforccmcnt can be Umar is said to have ordered Sad ibn Abi WaqqH~ move his camp back to a
demonstrated, it would certainly support the notion of strategic and site west of the Euphrates, rather than where he had stationed himself ne<ar the
operational centralization of the conquests. old Sasanian capital of al-MadL?in in the Iraqi alluvium, which might have
Another phenomenon bearing on the question of centralization is the been a more natural administrative location.-37 Numerous accounts tell of the
degree to which the Caliphs were able to remove military commanders from Caliphs instructing tribal groups moving to the front not to settle in one place
their posts and to replace them with new candidates of their own choice. The but rather to head for another about which they were less enthusiastic.38
traditional sources for the conquest period describe how the Caliphs changed h/Iany accounts describe how the commanders of the early conquest
commander or governor in a province with, sometimes, marked frequency. armies forwarded a fifth of the booty to the Caliph in Medina, but these
Related to this is the replacement of commanders lost in battle (as in the case accounts may, in fact, belong to the complex of accounts relating to taxation
of Abti Ubayd al-Thaqafi at the Battle of the Bridge in Iraq) or lost IO growing out of thr centralizing bias. However, only an extensive
disease (as in the cast of the Amwas plague).34 Frequent or regular dismissal historiographical analysis of these numerous accounts can help us to
of established commanders must be considered an indication of a significant undcrsrand their real date and provcnancc, and hcncc give IIS some idea o!
measure of centralized administrative control; at any rate, it argues against their reliability as evidence for the conquest period.39
commanders and governors being so entrenched that they could effectively On the other hand, G.-R. Puin has examined accounts describing the
resist dismissal. Moreover, we have no record of any governor or commander creation by the Caliph Umar of various diwdn or pay-register,40 which
before the outbreak of the first civil war in 656 C.E. who resisted dismissal distributed the booty among various categories of recipients, including
and rebelled against the Caliphs in Medina. There are accounts of Kh2lid ibll especially the soldiers on active duty. The existence of this institutidn suggests
al-Walid grumbling about his dismissal by Umar, and similarly Amr ibn al- some measure of administrative centralization and regulation closely tied to
& About his dismissal by UthmBn, but their opposition seems to have been the military activities of the conquerors. It seems unreasonable to suppose that
verbal only.35 the same nuthoritics who cstablishcd a regular pay-system for troops in thei!-
armies would simultaneously be unconcerned with where those armies went or
32 Al-Baladhuri, I;ItrtiIr d-l~uld~~, cd. M. J. de Goeic (Lcidcn, 1866), 255 (isnii(I: al-W%qidi). what they did in the field.
Huge yuantitics of camel bones wcrc discovered in &chacological slrata datable 1~) the conquest We may also find some evidence for operational centralization in the
period at al-Rabadha in Saudi Arabia, presumably the result of large-scale slaughtering (Dr. way the military institutions of the first Muslims are said, by the traditional
Geoffrey King, personal communication). It is tempting to take this as cvidcncc of a staging-
point or supply-base for the early Islamic armies, but confirmation of this interpretation must
await full publication of this material. ._l_l ..~
33 Noth, Quellenkritische Studien, 114-15: Noth-Conrad 123-29, considers such accounls
brielly, but is inconclusive regarding their significance. 36 E.g., al-Balldhuri, Futiijt, 152-53; KhammLsh, Al-,%&, 201-202.
34 On Abii Ubayd and his successors, see Donner, Em/y Islnrnic Con9uests, 195-YG and 202. 37 See several accounts in al-Tabari, Tarikh, I, 2482%.
On the Amwh plague and the rcplaccment of Yriid ibn Abi Sufyln by his brother Mu%wiya, 38 E.g., ibid., I, 2183 (Sayf) and 2185-87 (Sayf and al-Shabi), on Bajila being sent to Iraq
xc al-Baladhuri, I;u!cib, I3Y-4 I. ralhcr than to Syria; 2 1X7-88 (Says), similarly with Axi and Kin%na.
75 On.Khalid, see al-?ahari, 7ir1Tkh, I, 2 147-4X (Say I): 2 14X-49 (11x1 IslJ$q); 2 I4Y-SO (1111~ \) Such an analysis would bc sul~licicnt for a book and is far beyond the scope of this paper.
Isbaq). Like many of al-Takaris accounts about Khalid, thcsc have somclhing 01 Ihc characlcl I) Gcrd-Riidigcr Puin f&r L)iw(IIt vnfr Ilrrrc~r ibn cil-Hmucih. EiJJ &~imJ~ 7.fJr ~~~ii/?~,S~tJ/Jl;.~~k~Ji
of moralizing talcs. On Anrr, xc ahovc, n. 20. V~rwultu,zR,sX~,schi~~~~ (Diss. Bonn, 1970): see also l&&ys paper in this ~olurnc.
f Fred McGraw Dormer Centralized Authority
356 357

sources, to have evolved. Various organizational and technical features would units led by their own tribal chiefs, who simply served under the overall
suggest that the early conquest campaigns were, in fact, parts of a centrally command of the Muslim general staff; we read frequently, for example, of
coordinated conquest moverncnt, rather than isolated raids carried out by large groups from one particular tribe or other fighting in various battles,
unrelated parties. These include (1) evidence that the canlpaigns of conquest apparently as tribal contingents,44 and the reports about the settlement of the
were much larger, in scale and duration than usual tribal raiding; (2) evidence garrison-town of al-Kiifa in Iraq tell of tribal groups being assigned particular
that, unlike tribal raids, the conquest campaigns wcrc not limited to clearly quarters or streets, whcrc they rcsidcd togcthcr.45 But thcrc is also soJne
defined military objectives, but rather had an open-ended quality; (3) cvidcnce evidcncc of military arrangcrncuts that cut across tribal iiues, or Jwasurcs that
that the military techniques employed by the forces were more elaborate, or harnessed the solidarity oftribal groups in ways that benefited the state. Some
required a greater level of skill or training, than (he usual tribal raiding military arrangements that may have cut across tribal lines were the
displayed; and (4) evidence that the forces involved were not simply tribal organization of troops into ranks (SURGE) by weaponry (archers, lancers, etc.)
war-parties led by a tribal chiefs, but were to some extent organized in ways and references to (still obscure) organizational or tactical units such as the
that transcended tribal ties. The first two items are clearly depicted in the tens (a slziir), karadis, katnih, e t c . 46 Moreover, the Islamic state seems to
traditional sources and need not detain us further here; the third, on the other have turned to its own advantage the authority of tribal chiefs over their
hand, while potentially important, is difficult to examine adequately because kinsmen by securing the loyalty of such chiefs through special payments,
our evidence for military technology and field organization of the early grants of lands, and rhe like.47 The Caliphs could also channel various
islanlic armies is sparse and Oflcll quite I~rOhl~l~li~ti~.* 4 I IlliS ICilVCS fO1. IIS IO ;Itin7iiiislritli\~~ iI~~~l~l~ClllClllS Illr-oltgll lilt Irihcs. SrJch ;IS i-Clyill~ OII it figlllI
examine evidence for the organization of the early Muslim armies in ways 11~1 know11 as ltlc t/r</ in cnch tribe to distrihutc I~nyll\cttts (rrl~) to tllc soltiiars
were independent of, or that transcended, tribal affiliation. belonging to that tribe.48
Many of the Prophets military campaigns do not stem to have been As we saw at the beginning of this section, the centralizing tendency of
organizationally more sophisticated than the small tribal raiding parties of the Islamic narrative sources is very palpable in many reports about tax
pre-Islamic Arabia. 42 By the time the Muslims embarked on the invasion of arrangements supposedly made during the conquests. It is not nearly so clear,
Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, we are - if we can believe the traditional however, that in the many other arenas just surveyed the narrative material is
uarr;ltivc s~uiu!s iit all - 110 longer dealing with lhc Usu;ll llihl raids. bill wilt1 exaggeratcti b y , OI- cvcn infiucnccd b y , the ccntraiizing b i a s . i)ccisivc
much larger and more elaborate undertakings. It is, of course, possible to definition of the exact range of applicability of the centralizing bias must await
argue that these large armies 43 were simply agglomerations of large tribal
44 See the cvidcncc for this compiled in Donncr, &r/y Islo~?~ic Conquests. 223, and
KhammW. Al-Shiim. 264-65. 356-57.
41 The valiant effort to refine our understanding of conquest-era military phenomena made by 15 Dormer, &~rly Isl&ic Con&esfs, 22X-29 and 234-36. The basic references arc al-Tabari,
Jandora in The March from Me&a is noteworthy, but it seems to me that at many turns his TurTkh, I, 2488-90 and 2495 (both related by Sayf ibn Umar); on this slender base of
presentation relies more on extrapolation of what he feels should or must have been the
case, based on later Arabian or other military parallels, than it dots on deduction from solid evidence rest the various reconsttuctions of early al-KOfa, including the book of Hichem Djayt,
hist&cal evidence. Al-Ku&: naissance de la ville islamique (Paris, 1986).
47. On this see Ella Landau-Tasseron, Features of the Pre-Conquest Muslim Armies, chapter
46 On these arrangements and units see Dormer, Early Islamic Conquests, 223-26: Jandora,
6 above. Marchfium MPdinu, 113-16; Kbammssh, A/-,%771, 359-61.
43 Large relative to what was familiar in the Arabian context, at least; as ! have nolcd 47 On the use of such blandishments by the Islamic state of the conquest em, see Donner, Ear1~
elsewhere, the armies were actually quite modest in size, the largest apparently bcmg that at the Mnnic Conquesrs, 255-63. Note also al-Tabari. Turikh, I, 2187-88 (Sayl). in which the Fibal
Yarmiik in Syria (20,000-40,000 men); the army at al-Q%disiya in Iraq probably ntnnbcrctl Icadcr of Azd has to pcrsuadc his tribcsmcn to go to Iraq, as the caliph I-cqucstcd, rather than to
only bctwccn 6,000 and 12,000 mtn. SW Donncr, Eurly Islamic Conqu~sLs, 133, 135, 14. Syria, whcrc they wished to go; cleat-ly the tribal chiefs statut-c among their followers was an
142 (different fjgurcs for the Yarmiik); 205-209 (Qndiiiya); 22 I Cf. Jandoras cslimatcs (11 intportant rcsourcc used by the caliphs to mainhin control of the tribcsmcn.
36,()0() and 10,000 rcspcctivcly, although hc dots not dcVai1 how hc rcachcs LhcsC IigufCS 110111 Ix On the ir@ir (ol~ficc 0U the rrrg) and registration ol II-oops by lrihc see Ihnncr, lhr/~ f.skfmk
the conflicting numbers given in the SOUI-LX%; Jandora, Morchjronr Mctlinrr, OX antj 62. ~mqrr~w.r, 237-N; Khamm~sh, A/~,ShG/rr. 2hJ-OS. 3%-5X.
358 Fred McGruw Dormer 359

a much fuller historiographical analysis of the accounts in each of these Medina. The implication of this is that the Caliphs might well have been able
arenas, a massive undertaking that is far beyond the scope of this essay. to content themselves with giving their commanders only general policy
Nevertheless, the various lines of evidence summarized above tentatively guidclincs and objectives, sccurc in the knowledge that they would implement
suggest that even allowing for some exaggeration due to centralizing bias, the them on their respccrive fronts in a manner acceptable to the whole ruling
strategic centralization of the early Islamic conquests is not merely an group collecrivcly. Iho cxislcncc of this kind of group cohesion and
historiographical will-o-the-wisp. II i s true t h a t rcporls of Caliphd cwlrol bourt~gcncily b(Gh inm:;lsctl Ibc t-wlily o f gcncrd slratcgic co(.)rtlill;llior,, antI
of all tactical details and accounts of systenmtic tax arrangcmcnts are rcducctl lhc ncccl for CIOSC survcillancc 01 subordinates by the Caliphs (and IOI
exaggerated in the Islamic sources, but it nonetheless remains plausible to me the administrative instruments needed to carry out such surveillance).4Y
to assume that the Caliphs enjoyed a good measure of influence and control
over the conquests, both in setting general policy and in ensuring that it was IV. Conclusions
implemented along lines agreeable to them. While we must acknowledge that the Islamic historiographical tradition
There remains one final, general point about strategic and operational has presented the conquest era in an overly centralized manner in some areas,
centralization to be made here. Strategic and operational centralization is such as taxation, I believe that the traditional view that the conquests displayed
essentially a question of relations between the central authorities and the first both conceplual and strategic-operational centralization or unity retains an
order of subordinates - generals in the field, in a military situation such as the explanatory power s!rperior to revisionist alternatives - particularly what I
conquests, or governors after the absorption of newly conqucrcd tcrritorics have tcrrnctl lhc :~ccitlcrlrd (ticsis. Illc accitlcn(nl lhcsis - mwcling l o w h i c h
into the states domains. We can propose, as a gcncral organizational principle, tlic Awbs lou~~tl llict~wlvcs i i i posscssiou 0Iv;\sl tlotnaius Illal. ;\s ;\n
that the degree to which commanders in the field can be entrusted by the afterthought, they stitched together inro an empire - leave too many important
central authorities with implementing broad policy objectives is directly questions unanswered. How and why did they get there? Why was the military
proportional to the degree to which the rulers and their subordinates opposition of the established empires so ineffectual? How did the invaders
constituted a coherent and homogeneous group. In thinking about the early manage to penetrate not only the Iraqi and Syrian fringes of the Arabian
Islamic conquests, it is important to remember that the elite of the new Islamic desert, but also deep into Iran, Egypt, and even across the sea? Why was the
state was bound together by common values and expectations. According to UijSz, of all places, chosen as the ideological centre for these people who,
the traditional Islamic sources, at least, the early Islamic ruling @lite, whose according to the revisionists, had no particular conceptual focus and who.
members all hailed from the main towns of western Arabia - Mecca, Medina, when they first cmergc indisputably into the light of historical documentation,
and al-Tgif - was a small group of men, almost all personally well-known to are ruling from Syria.7 Why, if the empire was later pieced together from
one another. All had embraced Islam and had shared certain formative smaller pieces originally conquered by different, unrelated groups, is there
experiences (notably, helping the prophet Muhammad create the nascent little or no record of the fighting among these different groups that must have
Islamic state in Medina, and spreading its hegemony during the Prophets last attended the unification?50 If we assume, with some proponents of the
years and during the wars of the ridda).They were not all from the same tribe
(though many were blood relatives or became linked by marriage), so we are 49 This point is made k)r the Roman republic by Arthur M. Eckstein, Senate and Gerlerctl.
not dealing mainly with a long-distance network of kinship ties; but all were, Individual Decision md Rmmn Foreip ReInrims, 264-I 94 B.C. (Berkeley. 1987).
322-324. The main thrust OP Eckstcins book, however, is that rhc actions ol Roman generals
to a significant degree, shaped by their similar origins, common history, and played a significanl- but not unlimited - rBle in shaping Roman policy, tempering the theory
common commitments. This is not lo say that they all had exactly the same advanced by others (tsp. Mommscn) that during the Republic lhc Senate tightly controlled
lorcign fwlicy.
ob.jectivcs as individuals, but at least the commanders in lhc licld would have Consider hy wy or conq~nrison, for cxmj~lr, llic hislory of Ihc wiic region under Ihc
known what tncasurcs and bchaviour would bc acccpl;tblc to lhc Caliphs in .SUCCCSSOIS 01 All!X~lItdCl, WI10 IlNtllgll I~OUllCl lo Olll! iIllOlllCf by IllC ShCd cx[wicrlcc 01 l(lilg
360 Fred McGraw Donner

accidental thesis, that the conquests were really at the outset a hodge-podge
of local, uncoordinated raids by a variety of warlike Arab tribesmen with
no connection to one another, how do we explain the fact that when the dust
settles most governors, commanders, and rulers hailed from the &j&i towns
of Mecca, Medina and al-TFiif. which were not among the Arabian groups
most rcnowncd lix Ihcir mi\rIi:\l vi\lot~l~? Il~sc arc IIW kinds of cpeslions (hat
the revisionist interpretations do not i~tldrcss, much less answer, INII lOr which
the traditional interpretalion, even w h e n subjcctcd IO mu&needed
modifications, offers perfectly plausible explanations.

campaigning, scrvicc with the conquering hem, ;md p~wcrtul cuilurat chauvinism. immctli;Wty
began fighling one anolhcr upon Alcxandcfs death and spcnl the ncxl ICw ccnturics lighting
each other. Yet Lhc proponents olthc accidcnl;d thesis ask us lo hcticvc that mosl ollhc Arab)
chidbins who had .~oI~ichow cs~ablishcd ~lrc~nsclvcs ill the Near 1% irl Lhc early scvcr~ll~
century quidy put aside lhcir own ambitions and rallied round the Umayyads.