The Ikhwan: Medieval Warriors in Twentieth-Century Arabia

Once in power and with a growing list of international customers, including the United States, the Saudi leadership sought to moderate its official position regarding armed and violent jihad and attacking, plundering, and, undermining their neighbors based on religious justification. This dilemma is illustrated in the case of the Ikhwan tribe. The Ikhwan brotherhood had become muwahhidun (Wahhabis) who had organized themselves into “Hujjar” or agricultural settlements geared for war. These fierce and highly skilled warriors provided the Saud-Wahhabi army with effective shock troops, as they conducted a campaign of conquest across the Arabian Peninsula, or conversely, dependent upon one’s personal point of view, religious unification of the prophet’s homeland in the modern era. In the post–World War I environment, the Ikwhan continued their nineteenth-century raids attacking Transjordan and the Hejaz in a series of actions between 1922 and 1924.

Since Ibn Saud sought the conquest of the Hejaz, which was then under his rival Hussein, the attacks by the Ikhwan on the Hashemites served Saud’s purpose. However, following the Saud’s conquest of the Hejaz in December 1925, he began attempts at reigning in the Ikhwan. Nevertheless, Ikhwan leaders wanted to continue the expansion of Wahhabism into British spheres of interest, including Transjordan, Iraq, and Kuwait. Faisal al-Dawish of the Mutair tribe and Sultan bin Bajad of the Otaiba tribe, de facto leaders of the Ikhwan, complained that Ibn Saud had grown complacent and questioned his devotion to the muwahhidun cause and were angry with him for calling for the moderation of the raiding and plundering, which had brought wealth, prestige, and power.

As a result of the attempts by the Saudis to decrease the level of violence and attacks on neighbors, a rebellion involving the Ikhwan erupted, and they proceeded to conduct operations against settlements in Iraq and Kuwait. While the Ikhwan insisted that all infidels (non-Muslims) and misinformed believers (generally Shia Muslims) were legitimate military targets, the Saudis recognized that this perspective would eventually lead them into direct confrontation with the British. Thus, the Saudis began suppression operations against the Ikhwan with decisive action occurring during the Battle of Sibilla (March 29–31, 1929), marking the last major battle of camel raiders in Arabia.

Similar to the warrior spirit of the Mamluks aligning in challenge to the Ottomans, the Ikhwan aligned in challenge to the Saudis. The expectations of the Mamluks and the Ikhwan were also similar. For thousands of years disputes had been ultimately settled by a champion or a group of warriors aligning on the field of battle against an opponent or opponents in order to display their superiority in a physical confrontation. “To the victor, goes the spoils,” was the defining, decisive, and operative concept.

This duel “writ large” was meant to be a contest of courage and physical as well as moral strength to determine the worthiness of the two combatants or the two combatant armies—a decision that would measure both the relative worthiness to prevail and in providing clear and unambiguous evidence of the strength to rule over a specific territory, a territory containing people, resources, markets, and trade routes. This twentieth-century battle between the Saudis and the Ikhwan was not completely dissimilar from the plight of the great warrior tribe of the Mamluks, first in facing the Ottoman Janissary arquebus (early gunpowder weapon) with sword and bow during the Ottoman-Mamluk War (1516–1516) and, then, when facing French muskets under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.

A commitment to the old ways of fighting, a commitment to earlier tradition—of muscle and sword and of horse and bow—animated the behavior of the Mamluks as well as the Ikwhan. Both groups were brave, but both eventually paying an enormous price for insisting on fighting a battle without regard to the nature of evolution, of change, and, of technological and doctrinal innovation. At the Battle of Sibilla on March 29, 1929, the Saudis attacked first into the defensive battle array of the Ikhwan, followed by a feigned disorderly withdrawal. Sensing opportunity and seizing the initiative, the Ikhwan quickly launched an attack. However, as the Ikhwan moved in for the kill, Saudi warriors previously and discreetly positioned, opened up with British-supplied automatic weapons, and crushed the Ikhwan counterattack.

The Battle of Sibilla, the last of the great Bedouin battles, was the first time the Ikhwan had lost a major military engagement. Several other skirmishes took place between the forces of Ibn Saud and the Ikhwan throughout 1929 but none on the scale of Sibilla. By January 1930, the rebel leaders had been slain or imprisoned with the remaining Ikhwan warriors given the opportunity of joining the king’s army. As a result, many were incorporated into regular Saudi units.

When Sharif Hussein was driven out of the Hejaz by the Saudi army in 1925, the British provided safe passage out of Arabia aboard an English vessel transporting him to Cyprus. Although Saud had not actively joined in the Arab Revolt during World War I, he was the recipient of a British subsidy beginning in 1916. With Hussein forced out of Arabia, the British made entreaties to Saud and proceeded to improve the relationship. In 1927, London, accepting reality, signed a treaty with him that recognized his control over the Hejaz as well as his leadership in Arabia.

To reward the contributions during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire as well as serving in constraining Saud’s power, the British set up monarchies for the offspring of their former ally, Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca. Since the French had treated Hussein’s son, Faisal, rather brusquely in Syria, the British determined that he should sit on the throne in a newly created entity in Mesopotamia, which was called Iraq. The British also partitioned a portion of Palestine that lay east of the Jordan River, splitting it off from the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea (present-day Gaza, West Bank, and Israel). There they installed Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, on the throne of what was called Transjordan. Since Transjordan was now detached from the Mandate that was called “Palestine,” the British government insisted that this territory, which came to be called Jordan, was not to be subject to the Zionist project or Jewish migration.

While the British can be criticized for making extensive and at times conflicting promises during World War I, the commitment to Hussein, his family, and his tribe for fighting in the Arab Revolt was reasonably steadfast and not without considerable reward. However, two groups that found themselves left out of the newly created borders and proto-modern states were the Armenians and the Kurds. In order to placate the Turks and create an environment for moving forward in the postwar era, lands in Anatolia that were promised to the Armenians and the Kurds were never delivered. Both the British and the French had attempted to convince the United States to accept a mandate within Anatolia for the Armenian people. While President Wilson was open to the idea, the U.S. Congress refused to back it, just as it had refused to back the establishment of the League of Nations.

France had traditional ties with a portion of Syria, which was home to a Christian group, the Maronites, and had for centuries aided the Maronites in developing a network of schools, churches, factories, and trading posts. Once the Ottoman yoke had been dispensed with, this group sought to achieve a degree of autonomy that was now becoming politically possible. Toward these goals, Lebanese nationalists persuaded the Allies at the Congress of Versailles, the 1919 conference held to institute peace accords following the conclusion of World War I, to create a state centered on Mount Lebanon’s Christian community, which came to be referred to as Greater Lebanon.

In terms of the 1920 British Mandate for Palestine, in 1914 there were about 700,000 people of which approximately 615,000 were Arab and about 85,000 were Jews, many of the latter having arrived in the Palestine area in the late nineteenth century and following the formal establishment of the Zionist organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. These figures would rise to a total population of 960,000 (806,400 Arab and153,600 Jewish) in 1929 and to a total population of 1,336,000 (961,920 Arab and 374,080 Jewish) in 1936.

The objective of the Zionists was “to create for the Jewish people a publicly, legally assured home in Palestine.” At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Zionist and Arab representatives conducted discussions regarding the postwar settlement in the Middle East. The Zionist delegation was led by Chaim Weizmann, and the Arabs were led by Emir Faisal (Faisal I ibn Hussein). Faisal, Hussein’s son, agreed to the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine with a very important condition: that he be placed on the throne of Syria as well. Instead, Syria was given to the French under the auspices of a League of Nation’s mandate, and Faisal withdrew his support for the Zionist project in Palestine.

While Jewish population in Palestine had doubled since the start of World War I, by 1929, this was cause for riots within the Arab community. Jewish settlers owned about 4 percent of the land in Palestine and about 14 percent of all agricultural land at a time when most of Palestine was rural and its economy and social structure were agriculture-based. Thus, Arabs began questioning how the Jews had acquired their land. Absentee landlords owned much of the land in the various villages in which the Arab Palestinians had lived. Jewish Zionists had purchased the land from these absentee landlords (who were mostly Arab) and proceeded to evict the Arab inhabitants from homes and villages where the Arabs had lived for generations.

Arab farmers who had tilled the soil for generations were removed from the land, and many headed to the cities to find work. There, they found that many industries had been bought by Jewish investors and businessmen, and many had policies of not hiring Arabs. Without income or job prospects, thousands of Palestinian Arabs ended up in refugee camps, where intense animosity arose toward the Jews. These camps became a breeding ground for fedayeen fighters (fedayeen, meaning “one who sacrifices himself”). As Arab unemployment drastically increased, so too did the violence directed at the Jewish people in Palestine.

Only in the aftermath of World War I and the Paris Peace Conference did the name “Palestine” apply to a clearly defined territory, and through the League of Nations it became the British Mandate for Palestine. When the Palestinian Arabs rioted in April 1920 and again in May 1921, it was the British government that was responsible for order in the Mandate. Accordingly, the rioting brought a strong reaction from British authorities, who tried to suppress the riots by bombarding villages from the air coupled with negotiations with noteworthy Arab Palestinians. This resulted in political concessions for the Arab population and in turn irritated the Zionist leaders. Eventually, underground Jewish groups engaged in violence that was directed at the more extreme Palestinian groups. The Zionist groups also conducted attacks against the British who attempted to maintain order in Palestine and who began slowing the rate of Jewish immigration into the Mandate.

In the following year, the United States issued the joint resolution of Congress, which gave formal U.S. acknowledgment to the ideal of a Jewish national home. The argument between the moderate Jews and the moderate Arabs focused on the scope in terms of the meaning of the Balfour Declaration (1917).

The proper interpretation of a “National Home” for the Jews, as stated in the Balfour Declaration, according to Faisal, would be to provide for Jewish refugees a safe haven and shelter in Palestine, but not an independent and “purely Jewish government,” which would result in dispossessing the Arab majority. Furthermore, Faisal’s advice to the British government was to put pressure on the Zionist movement to accept this minimal interpretation.

The Jewish position was an expansive rendering of the Balfour Declaration and one that argued under the terms of the Mandate that Britain’s principal obligation was to facilitate the Balfour Declaration, pledging the “establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” and having no territorial restrictions whatsoever—neither east nor west of the Jordan River were to be placed on the Jewish national home. Of course, Britain maintained the partition of Palestine east of the river (Transjordan) was not subject to Jewish immigration vis-à-vis the Balfour Declaration. The operative parts of the Balfour Declaration read as follows:

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by the Jews in any other country.

Forcing people who had lived on the land for generations to depart through an eviction process and creating conditions that drove them into refugee camps would probably not meet the expectations of the British government that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Nonetheless, the fact remained that Arab Palestinians had lived under Ottoman rule for centuries and had never possessed a state that was called Palestine. In fact, Arabs had invaded the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean in the seventh century, killing inhabitants and reducing villages to ashes while simultaneously advancing the proposition that it was God’s will that they should do so. Similarly, the Jews had marched on Jericho centuries prior to the Muslim invasions of the Middle East and North Africa and attributed their right to kill every inhabitant in Jericho and to “take all the gold and silver for the Lord’s treasury” as divine will. At a minimum, both Arab and Jewish claims of seizing property and killing the inhabitants as being legitimate behavior because it is God’s will to do so deserves, at the very least, closer scrutiny.

By 1929, Arab assaults on Jewish individuals and interests had reached new levels of violence, and underground Jewish groups responded in kind. In 1936, a general strike took place among the Arab workers in Palestine, and the situation had essentially turned into stalemate, violence, and anarchy. British authorities, now under fire from both the Arabs and the Jews, directed that an independent commission review the situation and make recommendations for the future of the Palestinian Mandate. In 1936, the British Peel Commission concluded that Arab-Jewish coexistence was impossible and recommended partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. The Jews accepted this conclusion, while the Arabs did not. From 1936 to 1939, Palestinian Arabs were in open revolt against both the Jews and the British.