Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – “The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Brought You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram”

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 12:53am

SWJ Book Review – “The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Brought You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram” by Howard Bloom

Review by Jonathan Zartman

Bloom has written an extraordinarily thorough and richly descriptive argument, with a variety of supporting themes. Readers should start with the last chapter before the first. This chapter shows his great objective: To understand the thinking of radical Islamic militants like Osama bin laden and Daesh leader al-Baghdadi. Bloom logically takes great pains to trace the historical development of this form of thinking, using the orthodox literature of leading Islamic historians and jurists, because militants like bin Laden and al-Baghdadi claim these sources for their program and methods. He documents his deep, intensive research into the Hadith literature with 1930 footnotes.

This book should not be considered as any form of claim regarding the general beliefs of Muslims, or any argument about Islam itself as a religion (although the casual reader may jump to such a false perspective). This book has a much different objective, which has its own humane and liberal viewpoint.

For example, he bases his argument on social and biological research, attempting to explain the behavior of militant Islamists as the product of continuing psychological and social attributes of human beings, sharing many behavioral patterns with animals. He compares the biological research into the behavior of youth gangs, chickens, and rats subjected to physical stress. He concludes that these cases display a similar pattern: individuals deal with stress by abusing the weakest, or the “nerd” in the group. Leaders target the helpless as a tool for building social cohesion, and promoting the confidence of the group in its competition with other groups. He argues: “Every gang has its leader, its bully, its joker, and its nerd” (82). “The same is true in the pecking order of societies, the pecking order of nations and the pecking order of civilizations” (82). He documents the four times in which Muhammad destroyed a tribe of Jews, and concludes this represents using a strategy of attacking a scapegoat to build group cohesion.

Despite this ostensibly academic content, the eminently engaging, easy-to-read tone and style of the book holds the reader’s attention and interest. Bloom uses a repeated motif of “memes” and “meme hooks” to describe the psychological power of the personal and organizational doctrines and tactics that Muhammad used to build an effective, cohesive militarily force. He summarizes the staggering military victories of Islamic armies, and argues that they constitute an important form of evidence and guidance for Islamist militants today.

Bloom offers a number of well-documented and interesting case studies. For example, an excellent overview of the consequences of the massive recent Muslim migration to Europe and the attendant rise in crime, violence, and mass casualty attacks. He also carefully notes the education and middle-class background of most of the militants. He contrasts the view of Islamic militants seeking “the peace of the grave” and “the peace of the prison” to the European view of peace through trade and political federation. Bloom concludes that the 1,100-year history of peace movements in Western Civilization has had a soporific effect, citing Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. In contrast, he describes the claim of Islamist militants that pursuing peace requires warfare, following the example of Muhammad.

In another case, this book offers a great deal of detail on the protracted Muslim youth riots in Europe, primarily France, in September 2005. He refutes the arguments that these riots merely reflected poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and racism, using quotations from Muslim websites and bragging about their attacks as Jihad 3.0. Bloom also notes the efforts to Muslim leaders to calm down the angry teenagers. He cites the South Asia Analysis Group in its claim that the riots may have begun spontaneously, but then were “prodded along by three international extremist groups: Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which operates in 40 countries, Lashkar-e-Toiba, based in Pakistan and Jamaat-ul-Fuqra, a New York and Pakistan-based Jihadist group” (176). Meanwhile the UPI reported that “the radical Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat claimed credit for the rampage” (176).

In other chapters, he traces the development of CAIR, its practice of deception and support for militants (many of its leaders arrested for such support.) He discusses the Nation of Islam, which leads him to document the large and sophisticated efforts to promote Salafi Jihad doctrine in the American prison system.

Bloom makes some interesting claims in his discussion of Sufism: “In Baghdad Abd al-Qadir al Jilani focused on the quest for ecstatic emotions, on summoning those emotions by reciting poetry that praised Muhammad at the top of your lungs, and on practicing kindness and charity.”  He also notes the heroism of Muslims who fight against violence: Munawar Anees, former advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, and founder of two of the leading journals of Islamic Studies in the Islamic World: Periodica Islamica and the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies; and Kamal Nawash, founder of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism in Washington DC

Bloom calls Ayaan Hirsi Ali a “Muslim reformer,” when in fact she is openly an atheist.[1] He copies the list of genuine Muslim reformers that she printed in her book Heretic: (p 231).

In sum, despite the danger that a causal reader might extrapolate the argument made here - regarding the way in which radical militants think - to assume some claims regarding the beliefs of Muslims in general, this book offers a great deal of valuable information on a variety of pressing social problems. The clear, fluid writing draws the reader into this colorful and engaging story. Readers should be careful to keep their eye on the forest, the big idea, that radical militants claiming the mantle of political Islam employ extremely powerful psychological and social tools, supported by a rich historical legacy. The thorough documentation from original sources and the rich case studies make this book valuable for anyone seeking greater understanding of some of the most disruptive social movements operating today.

End Note

[1] After reading the Atheist Manifesto by Herman Philipse, she became an outspoken atheist. She was the keynote speaker of the American Atheists convention in 2014.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Jonathan Zartman is an associate professor in the Department of Research at Air Command and Staff College. He received his Ph. D. in 2004 from the University of Denver. He has served as a Fulbright Fellow to Uzbekistan, a National Security Program Fellow to Tajikistan and has traveled for research and consultations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Oman, and Turkey. His published articles and conference presentations cover the topics of social movements, civil wars, conflict analysis, cultural identity, and Islam.



Tue, 10/31/2017 - 4:38pm

In reply to by davidbfpo


To my mind, Hussey seems rather sympathetic to those carrying out the violence. This is not to say that I perceive a continuum - as some pundits do - from Toulouse in 721 to Toulouse in 2012, but the Arab Muslims tend to only be united during conflicts with other groups; absent that, they revert to tribes and fight among themselves. Unfortunately, their immersion in Europe has given them an "other" to unite against, based upon perceived oppression and oppressive tendencies.

Nor is it a case of "a few bad apples", as statements by the UK's MI5 and France's MOI indicate that 0.30% to 1.00% of the Muslim population in each is supremacist. It only takes 0.05% to 0.15% of a population (5% to 50% of supremacists) to be violent in order for a society to have a very, very difficult problem with terrorism, with Northern Ireland's "Troubles" being a very useful reference in this regard.


Tue, 10/31/2017 - 4:01pm

In reply to by Azor


I did and my focus was on the very narrow issues around very recent events in Europe, notably in France. Hence my reliance on Hussey as a writer and broadcaster.


Tue, 10/31/2017 - 1:51pm

In reply to by davidbfpo


Did you see my comments on Bloom and the review?

I truly wonder if Zartman’s recommendation of Bloom is part of the anti-Muslim perspectives finding fertile ground at various U.S. military academies and staff colleges, along with Gorka and the course materials leaked a few years back suggesting that nuclear weapons be used against Mecca…

However, Hussey is certainly no “acknowledged expert” on the criminal and political violence being committed by Islamists in Western Europe, which is clearly of much larger scope than France or French-Algerian relations. Moreover, Hussey’s discussion of anti-colonial “revenge” is historically ludicrous, given that Islam – from the first Caliphate to its successor polities – was decidedly imperial for more than 1,200 years, compared to less than 500 for Europe. At present, ethnic and sectarian mass murder by “Arab” Muslim Africans continues in Sudan, and sub-Saharan Africans find that they have little to no human rights in North Africa. Even in Algeria, most of the mass murder of civilians was committed by Algerians against Algerians, during and after their War of Independence, and the suffering did not end merely in Algeria because the French and the European settlers departed; on the contrary, it continued for decades.

Whether we are referring to the Sunni Arab supremacists of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Sudan, the Shia Persian supremacists of Iran, or the Sunni Pashtun supremacists of southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, they are all fighting for power over others. Despite the myopic focus on Palestinian refugees, Muslim societies are not historical victims: they are historical oppressors. This terrorism that the West is experiencing is merely a form of unconventional warfare due to the relatively recent collapse of the Turkish Empire (1918), and the postwar defeat and decay of the Arab Muslim revisionist powers (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya).

I fully agree with you that Bloom’s book is utterly useless. Yet as long as Hussey and his fellow travelers twist history to suit their feelings and call oppressors victims, Bloom’s voice and voices like his are a necessary counterbalance.


Tue, 10/31/2017 - 8:37am

I've never heard of the author, Mr Bloom, so I Googled him and his brief Wiki entry shows no mention of any expertise on the subject matter. Judge for yourself:

As regards the rioting and associated issues in France I wouldd prefer an acknowledged expert, Professor Andrew Hussey. Who in 2013 commented: 'This war is not a conflict between Islam and the west or the rich north and the globalised south, but a conflict between two very different experiences of the world – the colonisers and the colonised.' From:…

Andrew Hussey went onto write a book 'The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs' and in 2014 I found this quote: 'There is a lot of anger and a lot of young men willing to turn themselves into Soldiers for God. Most importantly, the rioters, wreckers, even the killers of the banlieues are not looking for reform or revolution. They are looking for revenge.'

The reviewer notes (cited in part): 'massive recent Muslim migration to Europe and the attendant rise in crime, violence, and mass casualty attacks'. The vast majority of Muslim migration to Europe took place decades ago, so that many of those involved in crime plus are born in Europe, whether in France, Germany (mainly of Turkish origin) or the UK. I do not dismiss the links to recent mass casualty attacks, they come from a still tiny minority.

Well the reviewer ends with: 'The thorough documentation from original sources and the rich case studies make this book valuable for anyone seeking greater understanding of some of the most disruptive social movements operating today.'

I can think of far better books than this one, without reading it.

Firstly, Bloom is no expert on Islam, Islamism or the history of North Africa and West Asia. How can Bloom make an argument based upon “social and biological research” when he is not academically qualified in those areas?

Secondly, there is no unique intellectual origin for supremacist terrorism. At present, in most of the world Islam is synonymous with Islamism, and Islamism lends itself to violent revolutionaries as Communism and Fascism do or did. All of these violent revolutionary ideologies spawn organizations that are led by zealots and opportunists. For instance, Lenin and Dzerzhinsky tended toward zealotry, whereas Stalin, Ezhov and Beria tended toward opportunism. Bin Laden was a zealot and al-Baghdadi – assuming that he is still alive – is an opportunist. Zealots are very difficult to turn by way of ideological appeal because they must convince themselves and others of the veracity of their causes as they understand them. Opportunists are impossible to turn by way of ideological appeal, as ideology is merely a cloak for ruthless and pragmatic self-interest.

Thirdly, Bloom is probably correct on the intentions behind the rioting Muslims of Europe. One can be unemployed, poor and discriminated against, and still lust violently for power over others. According Gilles de Kerchove, some 1% of the British Muslim population is radical or extreme, and 0.10% are serious violent threats. This mobilization rate for Islamism is worryingly worse than the paramilitaries were able to achieve in Northern Ireland.

Fourth, Bloom’s discussion of Western “peace” compared to Islamist “peace” is troublesome. The issue of Muslim “parallel societies” in Europe is more of a 50-year old one than a 1,100-year old one. Bloom may recall that until 1945, Western societies mobilized for warfare frequently against one another, as well as various minorities within.