Military Orientalism: Middle East Ways of War

Ahmed Salah Hashim. Middle East Policy. Volume 26, Issue 2. June 2019.

Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 361-63), addressing his assembled Roman legions, gestured at captive Iranian soldiers on the eve of an ultimately disastrous campaign against the legions’ rival, the Iranian Sasanian Empire, and called them “deformed, dirty and loathsome goats.” Julian’s denigration of the Iranians was neither novel nor original. In their long interaction with the peoples of the Near East, the Greeks and Romans ascribed “Oriental peculiarities” in war to race, culture, the despotic nature of governments and sometimes to the physical environment. They often conflated the first two, suggesting that despotism was racial and cultural in origin. As the Western world began to achieve military predominance in the 17th century, its observations became more contemptuous of the way of war in the “Orient”: the Near East, South Asia and the Far East. This paper, a summary of a forthcoming monograph, was inspired by the recent publication of Kenneth Pollack’s massive Armies of Sand. The paper argues that the West has distorted, in many ways deliberately, the ways of war in the Middle East, just as it has in the larger entity, the Orient. I start by discussing the concept of orientalism and then challenge much of what has been written by looking at distortions of Iranian ways of war and the belief in the existence of an unchanging “Bedouin‐Arab‐Islamic” way of war.

Ways of War

From ancient times, many philosophers, soldiers and historians have observed that different peoples have fought differently. Many of these observers cast aspersions, comparing others’ ways of fighting unfavorably with their own. As noted above, the Greeks and Romans did so; we also know the Iranians themselves were perplexed by the Greek way of war. Most explanations have relied on racial and cultural factors. However, in the 1920s, a classics scholar, W.W. How, noted that “widely separated races accustomed to a different physical environment” could develop an “armament and a style of fighting suitable to the nature of the country in which it dwells, and is practically unable to alter its national arms and tactics.” He added that the nature and character of the arms used by these different “races” will determine how they will fight.

The “way of war” concept emerged when the British officer and intellectual Basil Liddell Hart claimed that there was a specific British way of warfare. Others took it up to address how and why each nation fights the way it does. Early analysis in military history was often simply descriptive, describing the way X fights; rarely would they explain why. That came later. Most early discussions focused on the big powers; they had impressive military capabilities and fought a great deal. A second generation of analysts began writing about the ways of war of “middle powers” or of those in the Global South.


Orientalism is the study by Western observers of the Orient: the Near or Middle East, through South Asia and the Far East. This vast field of academic study has its origins in the 18th century post‐Enlightenment era, when the West pulled ahead in almost all spheres of endeavor to reach a higher pinnacle of “civilization.” Orientalism had an instrumental purpose. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought with him scientists, engineers, historians and archeologists. The purpose was in large part to find ways to establish control over the society recently conquered. Edward Said reinforced the notion that Orientalism has an instrumental purpose in his trailblazing book, Orientalism, which was excoriated in the United States because it challenged established dogma about the Middle East.

According to Said, Western powers developed over the course of the nineteenth century a series of discourses that dominated narratives until they constituted a “system of representation.” It is to this closely‐knit web of thought, scholarship and cultural production, and its empowering institutions, that the term Orientalism refers. As Said puts it: Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).

Western conquest of the Orient relied on military power and violence because, more often than not, the natives resisted. However, domination and pacification of the conquered could not be achieved by military power alone. One had to understand in order to control. As a way of thinking about particular cultures, Orientalism as an academic enterprise was enlisted in support of Western efforts to control the Orient.

Furthermore, in order to control the Orient, one had to understand and defeat their ways of war. The vast differences between the West and the Orient also extend into the military realm. Military orientalism is the “centrality of orientalist representations in the construction of oriental enemies and their warfare traditions.” It seeks to denigrate, dehumanize and render illegitimate the “other’s” application of violence. It also seeks to glorify the Western way of war and legitimize its own violence. This emphasis has resulted in an ahistorical contrast between a supposedly decisive Western way of war in which armies faced each other and its “devious” and “shifty” Eastern counterparts, who deliberately shied away from battle.

Military orientalism acquired a name only in the mid‐2000s, thanks to the efforts of two innovative academics in the fields of military history and strategic studies: Patrick Porter and Tarak Barqawi. However, military orientalism as a practice emerged thousands of years ago with the Greeks and Romans.

Greco‐Roman Views of Iranians

Among the first non‐Western civilizations to feel the brunt of Western scorn were the Iranians. Our historical understanding of their ways of war has been distorted by military orientalism in ancient, modern and contemporary times.

The ancient Iranians first experienced the practice of military orientalism during the monumental wars with ancient Greece (499-386 B.C.). At the beginning of Greco‐Iranian interaction, an unscrupulous Greek subject of the vast Iranian Achaemenid Empire that ruled over many Greek city‐states in Anatolia (Turkey) tried to win mainland Greek support for war. Aristagoras tells the Spartan king, Cleomenes, “The barbarians are not brave… and they go to battle wearing trousers and turbans, so they are easy to overcome.” What the style of battle dress has to do with military ability is anybody’s guess. Our historical understanding of Iranian ways of war has been distorted by military orientalism in ancient, modern and contemporary times.

The signal Greek victories at Marathon, Salamis and Plataea against large Iranian forces began the Greek process of denigrating the Iranians as a military factor and ultimately contributed to the later development of the Western view of the superiority of Greek (Western) arms against those of the oriental (Eastern). The imperial Iranian military that invaded Greece was made up of units from around the empire. It was not a mish‐mash of rampant racial and ethnic mixing. Each subject people of the empire provided its own national contingent with its strengths and weaknesses, posing difficulties of coordination and command, given the number of disparate forces. As historian Jim Lacey rightly asks, “If the Iranian military was made up of effete slave soldiers, how was it that the Iranians built up one of the largest civilizations in history, and how did they manage to maintain it?” Indeed, before the war, the Greeks were terrified of the Iranians, “barbarians” with seemingly limitless resources. The Ionian Greek settlers of Asia Minor—modern Anatolia—were subjects of the Iranian Empire and on the receiving end of the empire’s wrath when they revolted, with Athenian connivance, and were crushed. However, the dominant narrative leads us to believe that the Greco‐Iranian encounters constituted an unremitting series of Greek victories against their “inept” enemies. The Greek victories against the Iranian invaders of the mainland, known and lauded in the history of Western civilization—Marathon, Salamis and Plataea—led to the emergence of the negative Greek perception of the Iranians. This has been passed down to the present, although, to be fair to Herodotus, “the father of history”—who wrote about the wars—did say that the Iranians were no less brave than the Greeks.

The playwright Aeschylus, who had fought at the battle of Marathon, started the “process that converted the Persians from the terrible and feared warriors” into “those soft sons of luxury” in The Persians. The play is a panegyric to Greek heroism and an exposition of supposed Iranian naiveté, effeminacy and profound ignorance of their enemies. Two of the most famous Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, did not hide their disdain for the “barbarian” Iranians. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote, “The Asiatic races,” which included the Iranians, “have both brains and skill but are lacking in courage and willpower, so they have remained enslaved and subject.” In his Cyropaedia, the Greek commander, Xenophon, cut off in hostile Iranian territory with 10,000 Greek soldiers, wrote that the Iranians had fallen into deceit, impiety, cowardice, gluttony, drunkenness, sloth and love of luxury.

The calumnies did not dissipate with time. Roman views of one of their most dangerous enemies, the Parthians, an Iranian people who built a decentralized empire, were complex. Parthia was a threat to Rome’s eastern flank, but Rome could not stomach the idea that it had to accept these “barbarians,” whom it could not subdue, as equals. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who participated in Emperor Julian’s war, fell prey to stereotypes despite being very familiar with the Iranians; he regarded them as vain, treacherous and prone to savagery. To be sure, in wartime and particularly in the field, dehumanizing the Other functions as a morale booster for one’s own troops and an encouragement to kill the enemy. However, no other enemy of Rome (or Byzantium) was subjected to as much calumny as the Parthian state and its successor, the Sasanian Empire. This may be a reflection of the mortal danger they posed to Rome and its eastern flanks. The inheritors of Greek and Roman civilizations, the Christian Byzantine Empire, was no different. Emperor Maurice (AD 582-602), the alleged author of the famous manual Strategikon, wrote, “The Persian nation is wicked, dissembling and servile, but at the same time patriotic and obedient.”

By way of contrast, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Western commentary on the Iranian way of war under the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925) often focused more on organizational and structural factors—political turmoil, lack of finances and the power of centrifugal forces—than on cultural and racial characteristics.

However, the hobbyhorse of military orientalism—culture and race—came back with a vengeance in the 20th and 21st centuries, in both the entertainment industry and politics. In the hit fantasy‐action film 300, the valiant Spartans defending the pass at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. are portrayed, in the words of Jim Lacey, as the epitome of “heroic manliness.” In the film, they are solid Aryan warriors: tall and blonde, with rippling well‐oiled muscles. This is a form of homo‐autoeroticism that transmogrifies the southern European warriors into the epitome of the blue‐eyed Nordic warriors. The Iranians are effete slave soldiers from all corners of the huge empire, depicted as a deformed mongrel race, composed of small “dark” and deformed Quasimodo‐like individuals with “shifty” and coal‐black eyes. The film is anachronistic, projecting notions of Aryanism into this battle. The word Iran comes from Aryan, denoting Iranians as part of the Indo‐European linguistic group. The racial element, which Iranian nationalists also succumbed to, was added later, with the rise of race theories in the 19th century.

It is in the contemporary political arena, particularly since the 1979 revolution, that Iran has borne the full brunt of a modern military orientalism that not only denigrates them and identifies them as a source of danger, but also seeks to deny them the right to self‐defense. After Iraq’s collapse in 1991, the national‐security establishments and policy institutions in the Middle East and the United States commenced their search for the new “wolf” among the supposed “lambs” in the region.

For many years, a formidable array of Iran’s foes has consistently promoted an Iranian threat. More recently, a wide variety of policy analysts, academics and journalists has written pieces discussing how to “deal with” or “roll back” Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, its “propensity for interference and mischief‐making” in the rest of the Middle East, as if it were the only country, within or outside the region, engaging in military buildup or promoting its interests. Even highly respected professional military journals have used language that contributed to the entrenchment of the hostile narrative. For example, Jane’s Defence Weekly ran an article with the title: “Defiant Iran Finds 50 Warships for Zolfaqar‐3” [naval exercise]. Why is Iran defiant if it is exercising its military forces to test their readiness? Would such a word have been used to describe U.S. naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, thousands of miles away but on Iran’s doorstep? Iran cannot be allowed the means to fight; it must be open to attack. Better still is to get it to surrender bit by bit.

The vitriol against Iran increased from the mid‐2000s onwards. In 2003, the United States overthrew a key member of the so‐called “axis of evil,” Saddam Hussein, and Iraq came under U.S. tutelage. Attention turned towards Syria and the Islamic Republic. Statements by the George W. Bush administration that Iran would be “next” alarmed both countries. Syrian and Iranian support for anti‐U.S. forces in Iraq was quite extensive, as were Iranian actions on the ground. The U.S. response to these partly defensive measures was to accuse both Syria and Iran of being serial instigators of instability in Iraq and the region. The demonization of Iran reached hysterical levels in the 2000s and deepened considerably under the Trump administration, which implemented policies designed to emasculate Iran militarily, promote regime change, and even fragment the country. An objective position on anything related to the Iranian military and national security is regarded as sympathetic to the IRI, rather than empathetic or even merely objective.

Many objectively couch their approach to Iran in terms of empathy for the suffering of the Iranian people under a corrupt theological regime, but do not hesitate to call for a war that would kill tens of thousands of them. There is great interest in “liberating” Iran from its legitimate right to manage its own national security and independence, even following the sought‐after demise of the Islamic Republic. In short, Iran must not be allowed to deter; it must be subject to deterrence. Iran cannot be allowed the means to fight; it must be open to attack. Better still is to get it to surrender bit by bit. In short, Iran simply has no right to defend its interests or even its borders but must surrender its national security to be determined by others as they see fit. Its enemies are even trying to delegitimize Iran’s right to resist their efforts to subjugate it.

Bedouin‐Islamic‐Arab Warfare

Iran’s old enemies, the Arabs, have been subjected to the same calumny. First, there is the belief in a uniform and unchanging way of war among the Arabs from pre‐Islamic to contemporary times. Secondly, there is a conflation of Bedouin, Islamic and Arab ways of war. Years ago, historian Roger Owen reflected on these clichés. The most common was that all Muslim armies are alike because “Arabness” (race) or “Islam” (religion and culture) homogenizes them all. The essence of the Orient is changelessness and uniformity.

The Western Orientalist “imaginary,” with its sub‐set, military orientalism, has been consistent over hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Western pacification of recalcitrant “natives” who objected to being reduced to colonial status was brutal, the violence legitimatized by la mission civilisatrice. In the early 20th century Western fury over the temerity of the “dirty Arab” to launch insurgencies in Libya, Morocco, Iraq and Syria against the civilizing missions of Italy, Britain and France reached its height during the Algerian war of independence against France. The French did not hesitate to refer to the Algerian insurgents as “locusts” destroying the edifice of all the “good” the French had wrought.

The swift defeat of Arab arms in the 1967 Six‐Day War ascribed it to deficiencies in the Arab personality or character, educational practices and culture writ large, rather than to the structural weaknesses and failures of their political and socioeconomic systems. The ineptitude of the Arab soldier, who eagerly surrendered, was juxtaposed with the longhaired “plucky” and “heroic” Israeli soldier, whose blitzkrieg was “Germanic” in its efficiency. The fact that the Arabs could fight in 1973, though not without displaying a profound inflexibility, was a source of dismay for Israelis and Americans and glee for the Soviets. Indeed, the 1967 war constituted the benchmark from which studies, notably by Kenneth Pollack and Norvelle DeAtkine, on the inability of the Arabs to build conventional armies and wage conventional warfare took off. These two analysts, in particular, discuss the contemporary Arab way of war and its strengths and weaknesses based on the premise that the failures in the Arab way of war are due to some failure in Arab culture or their ideas, customs and social behavior, which somehow “seep” into their militaries. Even though they make critical methodological and historical errors in their analyses, Pollack and DeAtkine are erudite analysts, accomplished military historians and political scientists, whose works are admirable in many respects.

However, with the rise of militant Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups, a host of observers with little or no understanding of the military history of the Middle East have entered the field. The military practices of these Islamist groups provided them with considerable ammunition; many regard the 1973 war as the “aberrant” apotheosis of Arab conventional achievement. Indeed, after the infamous al‐Qaeda “raid” on 9/11, the Arabs reverted to form: their “devious, shifty, and cowardly way of war.” There was a flurry of observations on the alleged unchanging nature of Arab, Islamic and Islamist/jihadist fighting. Indeed, the 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed the perpetuation of the same observations. While the language was more politically correct than the racist language used in the nineteenth century, the sentiments of disdain and contempt concerning the defects and inferiority of the Oriental way of war, often lubricated by either ignorance or political malice, became further ingrained. A brief overview of these observations highlights their faults.

Five years ago, the American Thinker, a conservative magazine, ran an article with the mystifying title, “The Black Flag Signifies the Military Tactics of Muhammad.” The author, Robert Klein Engler, proclaims that he had uncovered the secret behind the military tactics of ISIS, the Islamic State: The Black Flag of ISIS is not new. It has been seen in the West before. The strategy of those who fight under that flag is not new, either. The strategy is world domination under the rule of Islam.

“World domination under the rule of Islam” is not a strategy but a policy goal. Engler invidiously suggests a chain of continuity in operational art between Mohammad’s Black Flag and that of ISIS. Engler provides “evidence” of ISIS designs by quoting spurious sources, none of whom are military historians or authorities on Islamic civilization and its way of war and are certainly not strategic analysts or thinkers. Battles between Greeks and Iranians occurred close to 1,000 years before the rise of Islam or the emergence of the Arabs as a significant factor in history. The Iranians are not Arabs, and the Greeks were not fighting Islam.

Another study of the Islamist or Arab way of war was published in a reasonably academic journal. It begins, “The October 2002 bombing of a nightclub in Indonesia’s popular resort island of Bali, which killed more than 190 people—mostly tourists and many Westerners—is a grim example of the new Arab way of war.” Indonesians would be surprised to know that they are Arabs. The article continues, “The first great struggles between the Middle East and Europe to be recorded fully were the campaigns of Salamis and Plataea in 480-479 B.C.” between the Greeks and Iranians, about which Herodotus wrote. Any informed person would be baffled. Battles between Greeks and Iranians occurred close to 1,000 years before the rise of Islam or the emergence of the Arabs as a significant factor in history. The Iranians are not Arabs, and the Greeks were not fighting Islam. Further warming to their topic, the authors fast‐forward through centuries: “There would be another thousand years of see‐saw wars on sea and land before the last Middle Eastern attack on a major European city, Vienna, was repulsed in 1683….” The attackers, the Ottoman Turks, were equipped with a proper army and siege equipment, and were not conducting a terror campaign or large‐scale raid. They had one of the best armies of the time and intended to conquer Vienna as they had Constantinople.

More disturbing is the following ahistorical survey after 9/11 by eminent military historian John Keegan shortly before his death: Westerners fight face to face, in stand‐up battle, and go on until one side or the other gives in. They choose the crudest weapons available, and use them with appalling violence, but observe what, to non‐Westerners may well seem curious rules of honour. Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle, which they often deride as a sort of game, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy … Western warfare had its origins in the conflicts of the citizens of the Greek city‐states who fought to defend the strictly defined borders of their small political units. Beyond their world the significant military powers, however, were nomads, whose chosen method was the raid and the surprise attack. Once they acquired a superior means of mobility, in the riding horse, they developed a style of warfare which settled people found almost impossible to resist. The Arabs were horse‐riding raiders before Mohammed. His religion, Islam, inspired the raiding Arabs to become conquerors of terrifying power, able to overthrow the ancient empires both of Byzantium and Persia and to take possession of huge areas of Asia, Africa and Europe. It was only very gradually that the historic settled people, the Chinese, the Western Europeans, learnt the military methods necessary to overcome the nomads. They were the methods of the Greeks, above all drill and discipline. The last exponents of nomadic warfare, the Turks, were not turned back from the frontiers of Europe until the 17th century. Thereafter the advance of Western military power went unchecked … The Oriental tradition, however, had not been eliminated. It reappeared in a variety of guises, particularly in the tactics of evasion and retreat practiced by the Vietcong against the United States in the Vietnam war. On September 11, 2001 it returned in an absolutely traditional form. Arabs, appearing suddenly out of empty space like their desert raider ancestors, assaulted the heartlands of Western power, in a terrifying surprise raid and did appalling damage.

Keegan’s viewpoint was refuted point by point in the Guardian newspaper the day after his traducing of a wide range of non‐Western civilizations. A rigorous military historian of the West, he seemed to rely on prejudice and factually incorrect assertions concerning the military practices of the non‐Western world. This was derived from a shallow reading of a much‐criticized book on the Western way of war written by the classical historian and vintner Victor David Hanson. Necessary for Keegan’s thesis was the blanket reference to all Asians as Orientals, without differentiating among the vastly different peoples that make up this culturally rich and diverse continent.

How would Keegan have responded to this quote from the famous Strategikon of Byzantium, a Western and, furthermore, Christian empire, actually Greek, the ostensible progenitors of the Western way of war. The military treatise advises, “In particular one should avoid pitched battles which decide irrevocably the fate of armies and peoples. Instead, one should resort to cleverness, ingenuity and surprises, stratagems and ruses.” The Roman military theorist of the late 4th century, Vegetius, wrote in his De Re Militari that decisive battle is not often necessary: Every plan, therefore, is to be considered, every expedient tried and every method taken before matters are brought to this last extremity [battle]. Good officers decline general engagements where the danger is common, and prefer the employment of stratagem and finesse to destroy the enemy as much as possible in detail and expose them without exposing our own forces.

Neither Hanson nor Keegan resolved fatal contradictions in their argument: If face‐to‐face direct battle were a peculiarly Western way of war, why would non‐Westerners field armies time and again to face the Western armies in these kinds of deadly battles rather than run away in accordance with their supposed cultural predilection to “evasiveness, indirectness, and ungentlemanly war”? If the ancient Greeks were the progenitors of the Western way of war, whose characteristic is face‐to‐ face combat, how was it that the Greeks did not exhibit this “heroic” characteristic in their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century? Instead, they fought in a sneaky and devious manner, much to the disgust of their Western supporters who had built up an image of heroic Greeks at odds with the reality of the 19th century. Surely, there must have existed a direct chain of transmission from the ancient Greeks to the modern Greeks, as there was from the ancient Greeks to the wider Western world? In Iraq in the 1920s, for example, tribal sheikhs disconcerted the imperious British with their political sophistication, while the urbanite denizens agitated for self‐determination and were often victims of a virus acquired from the West: nationalism.

A seemingly more sophisticated analysis, because it is the longest and because the author has some pretensions to the study of interactions with Middle Easterners and Islam, is the 100‐page monograph by Harold Rhode, a former U.S. Department of Defense official, called Modern Islamic Warfare. In his preface introducing Rhode, Frank Gaffney, whose Center for Security Policy published the work, refers to his friend as “one of the top Middle Eastern scholars of our time.” Rhode begins thus: The original Islamic warriors optimized tactical advantages, including deception, intimidation, and assassination, to compensate for their relative ineffectiveness in conventional combat against larger forces in Arabia and elsewhere. Likewise, today’s Islamic soldiers pursue unconventional warfare, employing hijackings, suicide bombings, and other terrorist tactics to create asymmetries and subdue superior foes in the West.

This is an ahistorical interpretation of early Islamic warfare suggesting a chain of continuity with the present that factually does not exist. Rhode must not have read the detailed descriptions of the conventional battles between the Muslim Arabs and their Byzantine and Sasanian Iranian foes, some of which the Arab invaders won and some of which they lost. These were often bloody, face‐to‐face, symmetric encounters between closely matched infantry and cavalry forces, such as occurred at the battles of Ajnadain, Yarmuk, Jalula, Qadisiya and Nihavand. It was Arab infantry that won in pitched battles fought against very tenacious, skilled and courageous enemies and not irregulars—Bedouin tribal warriors—who would not have had the stamina or resources to be the primary force in such bloodletting.

The military‐orientalist narrative of an unchanging Bedouin‐Arab‐Islamist way of war transmitted down to the present does not accord with the historical reality.

Bedouin Way of Warfare

The high regard for the Bedouin Arab among a certain category of Western observers from the 18th century through the 20th and early 21st centuries, namely Orientalists, seems curious. Despite the propensity of some Bedouin tribes to rebel against colonial authority, particularly after the second period of acquisitions at the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Western officials began to contrast the Bedouin with the supposedly “shifty” urban denizens of the Middle East. The Bedouin was considered more reliable, a political simpleton, though this was inaccurate. In Iraq in the 1920s, for example, tribal sheikhs disconcerted the imperious British with their political sophistication, while the urbanite denizens agitated for self‐determination and were often victims of a virus acquired from the West: nationalism.

The Bedouin was not some living manifestation of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” wallowing in natural equality and living at peace with nature. A harsh and unforgiving environment shaped Bedouin culture and life, a constant struggle for survival against both the elements and rivals. Furthermore, historically there has been an inherent tension between the Arab badu and the hadari even before the rise of Islam, in the period known as the “jahiliyah.” The Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun pointed to this division in alMuqadimah, arguing that the differences between the two groups stemmed in large part from the makeup of their respective societies and differences in their ways of earning a living.

The Bedouins, as the German historian J. Wellhausen reminded us in The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall, were stateless. They had no defined territory or infrastructure to defend. The Bedouin “economy” produced only enough resources for immediate consumption. The lack of a surplus meant they did not have resources to create a standing military, while an established state can extract resources to build a standing military. Resources also allow the state to build a functionally specialized military with infantry, cavalry, catapults (later artillery), a siege train and a logistics infrastructure. The existence of a military presupposes a differentiation between the military and civilian. No such thing existed in Bedouin or any other nomadic society; the Bedouin was both warrior and civilian: They [the Bedouin tribes] did not, however, form armies. An army, as an identifiable unit in society, can exist only if there are sections of society, which are in effect non‐military or civilian. In the Bedouin tribe, this was not the case: with few marginal exceptions, all adult males were fighters and all females and children the families and dependents of fighters … The military forces lacked any system of remuneration, fighting as they did for booty, honour or self‐defence. Nor did they have any structure of command with coercive powers … The individual Bedouin tent preserved its own autonomy, just as it provided its own subsistence and the warrior his own weapons. Social identity, formal training, provided equipment and payment, all characteristics of a true army, were foreign to this society.

The Bedouins loved to raid their rivals, especially weaker tribes. They waxed poetic about their military exploits, which were mainly imagined. Historian Hugh Kennedy wrote about this in a book on the military and society in the early Islamic state: Raiding and fighting, as well as defending themselves against the raids of others, were an integral part of their lives, as both the poems and narratives of the Jahiliya and information about modern Bedouin societies makes clear. This meant that most adult males had experience of military activity and some practice and even skill in riding, using spears and swords and archery…. Compared with the farmers and citizens of the settled areas of the Near East, they were a military population.

The Bedouins fought over land and scarce resources (water, grazing rights, caravan goods). They fought over trifling things such as honor and prestige. Indeed, quarrels between individuals could lead to an eruption of feuds and counterfeuds. Their battles were not ones of slaughter.

Moreover, the Bedouin way of war, raiding, did not become the Islamic or even an Arab way. The Bedouins did not somehow transmit en masse their fighting ways to the Islamic state or even to the Arabs centuries later, any more than did the ancient Greeks to modern Greeks or the West at large. Indeed, with the emergence of Islam, pre‐Islamic warfare was radically modified to fit in with and adjust to the new state of affairs.

Mohammad’s Way of War

The Prophet Mohammad was a revolutionary, who sought to promote thoroughgoing change in Arabian society. Naturally, he had an impact on the primitive Bedouin way of war. When Mohammad created the first Islamic state, the paradigm of warfare in a hitherto stateless society shifted. The Prophet’s way of war cannot be divorced from his state‐formation ideas.

The Islamic community had an ideology and a cause for which it was fighting. Its religion provided a basis for why, and even how, one should fight. And this ideology was political. Even if the Bedouin had a way of war, it is difficult to ascertain the political impetus to their fighting, apart from honor and domination. Second, the entity Mohammad established in Medina was a state, and a state has to develop functionally specialized institutions, however primitive. One of these institutions is the military. Mohammad’s Medina clearly needed a military to defend it against its still‐powerful enemies.

Third, the characteristics of war had to change as well. The nascent Islamic state under Mohammad was to a great extent influenced by, and a captive of, the mores and cultures of the urban and rural society from which it emerged. Mohammad used the Bedouin way of war—raiding and hit‐and‐run ambushes—against his pagan Qureish enemies. These saraya—small‐unit tactical offensive actions—specifically targeted economic assets by destroying or seizing them and sought to deter allied tribes of the Qureish from raiding Medina.

However, given empirical evidence of the nature of battles between the early Muslims and their enemies, Mohammad and his lieutenants clearly made efforts to regularize and specialize their armed forces. Mohammad’s final triumph over his enemies in Mecca came at the head of an army of 10,000 warriors. Nobody can command a force of that size in an ad hoc manner. Hugh Kennedy points out that not much is known about how far Mohammad’s army went toward becoming a regular force and in harnessing the Bedouin warlike proclivities. Nonetheless, a number of observations can be supported by historical evidence.

Command and control became regularized in contrast with the timing of Bedouin raids. Mohammad was a prophet and a political and military leader; he established a combination of both charismatic and institutional authority over his army. His authority over the community was far more institutionalized than that of the traditional sheikh over his tribe. Units, as they emerged, remained tribal; adult males from a tribe would fight together, and thus benefit from traditional tribal solidarity and unity in battle. This led to the emergence of cohesion within Muslim units, which was further cemented by indoctrination in and adherence to Islam as an ideology. The early Muslim army also exhibited signs of functional specialization. While the Bedouin fighters were still responsible for arming, equipping and feeding themselves, there was evidence that members of the nascent Muslim community raised money to provide arms, food and equipment for the fighting units, particularly those from the cities. This established the principle of a defined logistics system, however primitive. Admittedly, there was no final cataclysmic battle that overthrew the Qureish. Exhausted as a result of Mohammad’s relentless mobile warfare and political adroitness, they surrendered. Units, as they emerged, remained tribal; adult males from a tribe would fight together, and thus benefit from traditional tribal solidarity and unity in battle.

Finally, infantry, which became the backbone of Mohammad’s and later Muslim armies, was composed of personnel from urban areas. These infantry forces bore the brunt of Byzantine and Sassanian onslaughts in the battles of Yarmuk and Qadisiya. The military orientalists’ obsession with the trope of Arab warfare as raids erupting from out of the desert is incorrect.

The Islamic Way of War

Just as there was no transmission of the pre‐Islamic Bedouin way of war to that of Mohammad in Medina, there was no transmission of Mohammad’s way of war to the Islamic armies that came after Mohammad’s small state. After Mohammad’s death, however, the Muslim armies changed irrevocably. Second, there is no and has never been a uniform Islamic way of war.

There were vast differences between Mohammad’s embryonic armies and the large forces that the vastly different Ummayad, Abassid, Fatimid, Ottoman and Mughal empires were able to build in order to defend and expand their respective realms. Indeed, Muslim armies from the time of Mohammad till the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in 1921 came in many shapes and sizes. For example, the larger armies, such as those of the Fatimid, Ottoman, and Mughal empires, had distinct regular components consisting of infantry, cavalry, and later artillery. Even smaller armies, such as that of the Moroccan kingdom, could field regular forces. Indeed, before it ultimately lost its independence, Morocco held its own against Europeans by means of a regular army. In 1578, a Moroccan army with infantry and artillery crushed invading Portuguese forces at Wadi‐l‐Makhazan. The historian Andrew Hess describes the battle: Modern in every way, the violent clash between Portuguese and Saadi armies took place in an open field where each side maneuvered disciplined military forces of infantry, cavalry, and artillery….

So much for the inability of Middle Easterners to fight in an organized and disciplined manner like Europeans. Centuries later, the Moroccans again fought conventional pitched battles against the Europeans, defeating the Spanish invaders before succumbing to a combined Franco‐Spanish onslaught during the Rif War (1920-27).

To be sure, Islamic armies had irregular components for scouting, screening the movements of the main body of the army, reconnaissance and small‐unit engagements. This functional specialization into regular and irregular formations paralleled that of early modern Europe as it emerged from the feudal era. States developed both regular and irregular military organizations, and European warfare involved the use of both to wage wars against each other. European officers wrote a great deal about small war—Partisanenkriege and la petite guerre—in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were waged by forces controlled by one state against another, or even against the irregular forces of an enemy, and were characterized by raids, ambushes, hit‐and‐run actions, all‐round deception, deceit and skullduggery.

The Arab Way of War

After the collapse of the Abbasids in 1258, the Arabs faded from imperial history. They controlled none of the post‐Mongol Islamic empires. Indeed, even at the height of the Abbasid Empire, the military had become a Turkic and Caucasian slave‐soldier‐dominated force. Turks proved to be the martial force of the Islamic empires, including in Iran, where the pre‐Pahlavi Safavid, Afsharid and Qajar dynasties were dominated by Turkish warriors.

However, Arabs did rebel against European invasion and occupation in the 19th century, when imperial powers decided they had a right to go overseas and seize lands and resources, sometimes justified as a “civilizing mission.” How did these Muslim Arabs and non‐Arab Muslims fight? They adopted the techniques the weak have always used against the strong: guerrilla warfare and insurgency. It should be noted that, in two instances, the weaker Abd al‐Qader al‐Jazairi in Algeria and the Riffians in Morocco succeeded in building small regular‐warfare contingents to complement their mobile units against French and Franco‐Spanish forces.

The Arabs re‐emerged in the early 20th century when the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled them for many centuries, collapsed following World War I. Thus began the modern era, Arab militaries formed by colonial powers. It was followed by the contemporary era, from the postcolonial era—roughly after 1945—to the present. These are vastly different entities, even if we accept that the contemporary Arab military owes a great deal to its colonial forebears.

The modern Arab militaries emerged under European colonial powers after World War I, when Britain and France reaped the territorial and political benefits of the Ottomans. These colonial armies did not really have a way of war. They often proved incapable of dealing effectively with opposition to colonial power. They were poorly equipped, badly organized and ill trained. In many cases, this suited the colonial power, even as some of the Western officers complained about the inadequacies of their own creations in the colonies.

The colonial Arab militaries were hotbeds of political ferment and anticolonial nationalism, particularly when the officer corps was opened to members of the emergent middle classes. Since they could not focus on their profession—preparing for war and developing fighting techniques—the officers plunged into intrigue against the colonial masters and collaborationist political elites. Rather than training to defend their countries against enemies, which they were unable to do as their lands were under others’ control, they trained politically to free their countries from colonial hegemony and archaic political structures. And they took the habit of political intrigue with them into the postcolonial era.

To be sure, contemporary Arab armies have not been very good, as Pollack and DeAtkine have argued, based on empirical evidence. Is this due to culture or education? First, it is never a safe bet to reduce your argument to a single cause, as British historian Edward Hallet Carr demonstrated brilliantly in What is History? Second, there are profound methodological pitfalls in trying to show how ordinary culture is transmitted into the regular militaries of Arab armies but not into irregular Arab forces, judged by these authors to be better at fighting. For example, we would not deem the Lebanese Army to be a first‐class fighting force, but many would judge Hezbollah to be superb. So, unless Hezbollah soldiers were immune to the cultural practices within Lebanon and the effects of its supposedly stultifying educational system, what explains their fighting capabilities? Similarly, if Arabs are incapable of flexibility, innovation, and outside‐the‐box thinking in their regular armed forces, how do they develop it as insurgents?

Those who base their arguments on culture should not be too quick to dismiss the explanation for Arab failures that are untainted by military orientalism. The causes of the failings of Arab armies are numerous: the peculiarities of the political system (including civil‐military relations that affect readiness), organizational biases within military establishments (including poor training practices) and a profound lack of professionalism in the officer corps (lacking expertise, focusing on political intrigues or making money). Some have been explored by analysts such as Caitlin Talmadge and Risa Brooks, and in the case of the Egyptian and Iraqi armies by officers themselves.


The West looks at how others fight through a peculiar lens, military orientalism as the academic literature would have it. It existed since ancient times, reflected in Greco‐Roman views of their formidable Iranian enemy. Western colonial powers exhibited a form of military orientalism in their denigration of “native” ways of war in the non‐Western world, particularly Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. In the case of modern Iran, some knowledgeable nineteenth‐century Western observers on the ground avoided cultural and racial categorizations to account for the “peculiarities” and weaknesses of the Iranian way of war under the long‐suffering Qajar dynasty.

Many military orientalists conflate Bedouin, Arab, Islamic and jihadist ways of war, arguing that there is a uniform Islamic way that has not progressed much beyond ancient and medieval times, both in theory and practice. Many contemporary Western observers who have written these analyses are not experts in Islam or the history of warfare. Some are political scientists and current‐affairs experts who have observed Islamist groups and nonstate actors conducting irregular or insurgent warfare in contemporary times. They have been extrapolated backwards to discover similarities with how Bedouins, Arabs and Muslims fought in ancient, medieval and early modern times, producing an undifferentiated Islamic way of war.

This type of analysis is profoundly misguided. The characteristics of what they refer to as the Islamic way of warfare—ambushes and hit‐and‐run raids—are intimately associated with insurgency and guerrilla wars, found in almost all situations where the weak face the strong. In the Filipino‐American War of 1899-1902, the Filipino lawyer Apolinario Mabini brilliantly deconstructed the arguments of U.S. officers that the decision to use guerrilla war against the American occupiers was indicative of the Filipinos’ uncivilized nature. Mabini retorted, arguing that guerrilla warfare was not ethnographic or a genetic characteristic of particular ethnic groups, but a structural characteristic of a gross power differential. He reminded his American interlocutors of their own use of raiding, ambushes and deception in their war of independence (1775-83).

The military‐orientalist crusade to point out the defects of the Other’s way of war and delegitimize it has a long history. Military orientalism is now notoriously silent concerning the Far East, where Western powers suffered massive military defeats during World War II and the wars of decolonization, and because the countries the far Orient have learned how to create effective military power. However, it is still going strong with respect to the Middle East.