Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 26 - Spent most of today's History of War class talking about the rise of Islam and the military system of Muhammad and the early caliphs.  One of the things I like about the course is the chance it gives me to bone up on things I know little about, and this subject was one of them.  I had the usual grab bag of sources, but one of the more useful was Patricia Crone's essay, "The Early Islamic World," in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein, eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  (Which, incidentally, is one of most useful collections of that type that I've seen, and, with its coverage of societies in Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica, is a good example of what world military history could produce.)

But for the early development of Islam I looked mostly to a couple of world history textbooks, because when you're trying to impart the basic info it's useful to see how somebody else managed it.  They always begin by discussing Arab society before Muhammad's birth.  This part got cribbed into my notes thus:

Key social institution:  the clan.  Clans grouped together in tribes.  Tribes fought one another--clan rivalry was an outgrowth of the values the Arabs shared.  Warfare tended to be small-scale:  raids to acquire goods, intertribal fighting to avenge insults and gain booty.  Not very lethal, as is typical of societies with small populations.  For men, bravery in battle was a socially vital attribute, insult and humiliation things to be avoided.  Great fear of  being shamed.  Manliness also involved an obligation to be generous, to give away loot  taken in  intertribal warfare.  Women were often part of this loot.  The practice of polygyny was common.

As I wrote this, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a scene from the film Lawrence of Arabia.  Maj. T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish (Omar Sharif) are visiting the tent of Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), trying to persuade him to join their attack on the Ottoman garrison at Aqaba.  So today in class I used it, anachronistically but I hoped effectively, to introduce the Bedouin world before Islam.


Audar (Anthony Quinn) reacts to the words of Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

After briefly outlining the First World War context, I introduced the clip by saying that Lawrence was a highly educated man, spoke Arabic, and had an extensive knowledge of Arab culture which he tried to exploit in order to secure Audar's cooperation on terms that fit Audar's traditionalist world view:

In Auda's tent
          
                          AUDAR
          This thing you work against Aqaba, what 
          profit do you hope from it?  [The loot motive]
          
                          ALI
          We work it for Feisal of Mecca. The Harif 
          do not work for profit.
          
                          AUDAR
          Well, if a man was meant to be a servant, 
          Ali, he could find worse masters than 
          Feisal, but I...I cannot serve. 
          
                          LAWRENCE
          You permit the Turks to stay in Aqaba.
          
                          AUDAR
          Yes, it is my pleasure.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          We do not work this thing for Feisal.
          
                          AUDAR
          No? For the English, then?
          
                          LAWRENCE
          For the Arabs.
          
                          AUDAR
          The Arabs. The Howitat, Ajili, Rala, Beni 
          Saha; these I know, I have even heard of 
          the Harif, but the Arabs! What tribe is 
          that?             [tribes as the principal locus of identity] 
          
                          LAWRENCE
          They're a tribe of slaves; they serve the 
          Turks.  [studied use of insult to stimulate Audar's sense of honor]
          
                          AUDAR
          Well, they are nothing to me. My tribe is 
          the Howitat...
          
                          ALI
          Who work only for profit.
          
                          AUDAR
          Who work at Auda's pleasure.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          And Auda's pleasure is to serve the 
          Turks.              [another studied insult]
          
                          AUDAR
          Serve. I serve?
          
                          LAWRENCE
          It is the servant who takes money.
          
                          AUDAR
          I am Audar Abu Tayi! Does Audar serve?
          
                          CROWD
          No!
          
                          AUDAR
          Does Audar Abu Tayi serve?
          
                          CROWD
          No!! Ha! Ha! Ha!
          
                          AUDAR
          I carry twenty-three great wounds, all 
          got in battle. Seventy-five men have I 
          killed with my own hands in battle. I 
          scatter, I burn my enemies tents. I take 
          away their flocks and herds. The Turks 
          pay me a golden treasure. Yet, I am poor, 
          because I  am a river to my people! Is 
          that service?  [bravery, prowess in battle; generosity]
          
                          LAWRENCE
          No.  [said respectfully, to acknowledge Audar's honor]
          
                          SILIAM
          And yet now it seems Audar has grown old 
          and lost his taste for fighting.
          
                          AUDAR
          It is well you say it in my tent, thou 
          old tulip!
          
                          ALI
          Yet, this is a tulip that the Turks could 
          not buy.
          
                          AUDAR
          Why should they wish to? Now! I will tell 
          you what they pay me, and you will tell 
          me if this is a servant's wages. They pay 
          me, month by month, one hundred golden 
          guineas.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          One hundred and fifty, Auda.
          
                          AUDAR
          Who told you that?
          
                          LAWRENCE
          I have long ears.
          
                          AUDAR
          And a long tongue between them.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          A hundred; a hundred and fifty; what 
          matters? It's a trifle...a trifle which 
          they take from a great box they have...
          
                          ALI
          In Aqaba.
          
                          AUDAR
          In Aqaba!
          
                          LAWRENCE
          Where else?
          
                          AUDAR
          You trouble me like women.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          Friends, we have been foolish. Audar will 
          not come to Aqaba.
          
                          AUDAR
          No.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          For money.          [though loot is plainly what motivates Audar] 
          
                          AUDAR
          No.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          For Feisal? [loyalty to an abstraction like an Arab prince is beyond Audar]
          
                          AUDAR
          No.
          
                          LAWRENCE
          Nor to drive away the Turks. He will come 
          because it is his pleasure. [A direct appeal to Audar's honor]
                                       
          
                          AUDAR
          Thy mother mated with a scorpion. 

 

 


"The Orientalist attititude . . . shares with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because of what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter.  The European encounter with the Orient, and specifically with Islam, strengthened this system of representing the Orient and . . . turned Islam into the very epitome of an outsider against which the whole of European civilization from the Middle Ages on was founded." 
                                                -- Edward Said

It was something of a stretch to use a scene set in 1916 to illustrate a society some thirteen centuries earlier.  In fact it was downright "essentialist"  (the reduction of peoples to their static essence).  But you can't do everything at once.  You can't discuss Orientalism with students who as yet may have little knowledge of the rise of Islam, the Crusades, European imperialism, and decolonization.  But you can lay the groundwork for it, by introducing those subjects in such a way that, when the right moment comes in the course, you can say, for instance, "Remember that time I showed you a scene from Lawrence of Arabia in a my rise of Islam lecture?  It only worked because of an assumption that there is something unchanging in Arab culture.  Let's look at it again, this time through the eyes of a Palestinian scholar, Edward Said . . ."  And indeed, while in Orientalism (1979) Said has nothing directly to say about the film, he has a lot to say about Lawrence's depiction of the Arabs in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence's memoir of the Arab Revolt.

 

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