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Reviewed by:
  • Muhammad: Islam's First Great General
  • Walter E. Kaegi
Muhammad: Islam's First Great General Richard A. Gabriel Campaigns and Commanders Series 11. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Pp. xxi + 255, 12 maps. ISBN 978–0–8061–3860–2.

This bold and ambitious reinterpretation focuses upon "the military life of Muhammad" (p. xvii). Muhammad's rise to power as "Islam's first great general and leader of a successful insurgency" (xviii), Gabriel suggests, offers modern observers "a textbook example of a successful insurgency" (xxi). Eschewing the broader history of the Islamic conquests, Gabriel limits himself to the life of the Prophet. Many historians of Islam will find this framing of Muhammad inaccurate and extreme, but the conception is not intrinsically erroneous. Although it is reasonable to examine critically the military dimensions of Muhammad's life, such a critique also should encompass controversial issues of sources and chronology not acknowledged here. Further, although Gabriel is the author of several military histories, his failure to consult period specialists undermines his analysis in this case.

Gabriel sets out to examine his subject within twentieth- and twenty-first-century frames of reference, yet omits significant work by Michael Cook, G. Hawting, Fred M. Donner, Michael Bonner, Lawrence I. Conrad, Chase Robinson, R. Stephen Humphreys, and Hugh Kennedy. Although Gabriel does cite Robert Hoyland's Arabia and the Arabs, he fails to mention his Seeing Islam as Others Saw It (1997). He relies instead on dated secondary scholarship, while making no direct use of original sources in Arabic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, or Armenian. Indeed, most of this biography concentrates on action in the Arabian peninsula. The battles of Badr, Uhud, the Ditch, and Khaybar are treated in micro studies. In contrast, the early Muslim expeditions to Mu'ta and to Tabuk, complex and controversial, need more discussion than they receive here. Gabriel also makes assumptions about the nature, and even existence, of jihad in Muhammad's lifetime that many Islamicists now doubt. Similarly, Gabriel demonstrates insufficient familiarity with Byzantine and Persian history, further undermining the credibility of his conclusions. The political-military situation in northern Arabia, for example, on the edge of Byzantine territory is poorly represented. [End Page 392]

The intended audience for this book is not specialists on early Islam or early seventh-century southwestern Asia but a wider public that might also include contemporary policy-makers. Gabriel's book, therefore, also forms part of the larger bibliography of public policy publications on Islam. "Muhammad's military legacy," Gabriel suggests, "lives in the minds of these jihadis in their memory of Muhammad as a great general and passionate revolutionary who created and fought a successful insurgency to achieve his political and religious goals. It is this legacy of Muhammad as successful revolutionary that motivates Muslim insurgents and revolutionary leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere" (219). Given the breadth of such claims, it is especially lamentable that the author did not seek a deeper immersion in early seventh-century history and the late antique context of early Islam.

Walter E. Kaegi
University of Chicago


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pp. 392-393
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