In my article “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus: Al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf and the Sufi/Scholar Dichotomy in the Late Mamluk Period (1480s–1510s)” I proposed that several groups named in the sources as Sufis could have resembled paramilitary groups. They were viewed as cohesive bodies of men exactly because they would act as such in military conflicts, being called upon or pledging allegiance to one faction or other.
In fact, their twofold impact on military efforts, both by preaching and waging jihād, must have made them appear to be good allies to have for any medieval muslim ruler engaged in warfare. They would not only act as preachers to call larger segments of the populace to arms, but would also join the fray themselves, sometimes leading formations of warriors made up from their own familial and neighborly networks.
As Toru Miura indicates in his seminal study on the history of the Damascene suburb Salihiyya, this involvement might also have been at the heart of Ayyubid patronage for Hanbali institutions in the quarter:
We should note here that the Qudama family often participated in military action. Abu ‘Umar accompanied Ṣalaḥ al-Din’s expedition to Jerusalem in 583/1187 with his brother Muwaffaq aI-Din and his other relatives. Shams aI-Din ‘Abd al-Raḥman (d. 682/1283), son of Abu ‘Umar, was often engaged in resisting the sieges of Damascus, and Najm al Din Aḥmad (d. 689/1290), grandson of Abu ‘Umar, took part in Sultan Qala’un’s expedition to Tripoli with volunteering Palestinians (al-Muqadisa) in 688/1289. We cannot know how they really performed in battle during these expeditions, but their biographers wrote that Abu ‘Umar performed jihad and participated in the battles (ghazawat) with Ṣalaḥ al-Din, and that Najm al-Din rode on horse, brought his sword and took part in the battle. The fact that both took part in these expeditions not singly, but accompanied by their families and followers, shows that they must have led military formations.Miura, Toru. “The Ṣāliḥiyya Quarter in the Suburbs of Damascus. Its Formation, Structure, and Transformation in the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk Periods.” BEO 47 (1995): 129-181, here: 144.
The Banu Qudama, the founders of Salihiyya, were thus not civilians per se. Rather, they would take up arms if called to a cause they considered righteous. One might even speculate in how far the Ayyubid patronage for Hanbali complexes in Salihiyya might have been the result of a quid pro quo agreement.
The situation was somewhat different in the period that I analyzed in the article. For once, whereas Ayyubid rule was localized within their coalition, the Mamluks had the resources of both Egypt and Syria at their disposal and could muster much more impressive professional forces. Nonetheless, however, they still relied on levies conscripted in Syria for the fighting on their northern border.
Secondly, warfare technology had changed vastly since the Ayyubid period, with cannons and other, hand-held firearms having become widespread. This carried with it a larger investment into the equipment of foot soldiers. Arguably, these costs would have been carried by the Mamluk treasury, at least those of the acquisition.
Alongside those aspects there are others to consider which rather point to a continuity with Toru’s statements. As the Banu Qudama in the Ayyubid period, so were several ‘Sufi’ figures of the late Mamluk period recent arrivals to Damascus. Equally, those sought means of securing resources for themselves. As several of those newcomers were originally from the Maghreb, including Andalusia, they would come with a comparable set of martial skills as the Banu Qudama. It is indeed a striking similarity that the latter had fled to Damascus from persecution by a crusader noble in Palestine, and the former had left their region which was subject to the military expansion of early modern Spain and Portugal.
Most importantly, its was the above-mentioned twofold benefits they offered to patrons. Their usefulness in warfare has been mentioned above, and their usefulness in more peaceful times has been addressed in the MSR article (it is available online and open access). Several scholars have studied the impact such Sufi movements had in disseminating the Muslim faith in the countryside and in strengthening the hold of Muslim rule in those areas alike. On the Syrian coast, such groups manned and maintained complexes called either ribāṭ or zāwiya, where congregational devotional structures were surrounded by strong fortifications and where the minarets could double as watch towers.
Those complexes played a decisive role in coastal defenses against pirates, and therein fulfilled a—not at all secondary—purpose akin to that of walled Irish convents and monasteries during the Viking Age. Thus, even in generally peaceful times those groups served as a paramilitary force where professional soldiers were considered too valuable or too expensive to provide safety. The connected dynamic of those men being holy men or holy warriors is intriguing and deserves further research.