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17. Understanding Islam

2.4. Mohammed’s move to Madina and the establishment of Islam as a military force

Thirteen years after Mohammed reported seeing visions of the angel Gabriel, Khadijah died. During her lifetime, Mohammed had not taken a second wife. Soon after Khadija’s death, however, he married a widow called Sauda, and while still married to her he also married a young girl called Aisha.

This is not the only thing that changed radically after Khadijah’s death. Mohammed’s uncle died soon afterwards, and on his death, Mohammed lost the protection he had enjoyed. The rest of his clan remained pagans, and there was no love lost between them and Mohammed. As a result, Mohammed left Mecca with his wives and around seventy of his followers, and moved to Madina to escape persecution. In Madina he would go on to marry more wives, until he had between 11 and 15 (depending on the source) at the same time. Some he divorced, so in total he is reported to have had between 15 and 25 wives.

Why did Mohammed choose Madina as his destination? As noted earlier, Mohammed’s maternal relatives were all citizens of Madina; although he himself was not technically considered part of their clan (local society being strictly patrilineal), nonetheless they afforded him some level of protection in his new home. There were also Arab tribes in the city who recognized him as a prophet (though not all actually converted to his new religion). Even before his move he had been recognized as a leader of some prowess, and had been asked to broker reconciliation between two feuding tribes of Madina, Banu Khazraj and Banu Aws. Once he had brought them together, they buried the hatchet and pledged their allegiance to the common religion. They became known as the Ansar, or “helpers” of Mohammed.

Madina had a strange social structure. It had two large Arab tribes, Banu Khazraj and Banu Aws. There were also a few Jewish tribes: Banu Qurayza, Banu Qaynuqa, and Banu Nadir. These Jewish tribes had migrated from the Levant a few centuries previously, and had established themselves around Arabia working mostly in trade or jewellery making.

The migration to Madina marked a huge shift not only in location, but also in his teachings. So significant was this move that it is now considered the starting point for the Islamic calendar (named the Hijrah calendar, after the Arabic for “migration”), and those who moved with him became known as the Muhaajiruun (or emigrants), and are to this day considered of higher status among Muslims in recognition of the hardships and persecution they are said to have endured in Mecca.

Once Mohammed left Mecca, the peace-loving religion he used to preach came to an end and his teachings took on quite a different tone. The Qur’an – although not compiled until a later date – contains records of Mohammed’s teachings from both periods, and there is a clear difference between what are known as the Meccan Suras (or chapters), and the Madinan Suras which read as something of a war manual as Mohammed changed from spiritual preacher to brutal military general.

Just prior to the Hijrah, there had been a famine in Madina and the land was no longer able to support the growing population. As a result when Mohammed arrived, he discovered that there was not enough food for him or his followers (or in fact any of the tribes already there). So after he had settled, he made four failed attempts to raid Quraysh caravans travelling to and from Mecca. Then in March 624 (in the second year after the Hijrah), he planned a raid on a merchant caravan led by Abu Sufyan ibn Harb ‒ one of the leaders of the Meccan Quraysh tribe to which his father had belonged ‒ coming back from Syria. Abu Sufyan learned of the plan from his scouts, and sent a message to Mecca asking for help. The Quraysh sent him around a thousand soldiers; however, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb changed route and successfully avoided the ambush. Nonetheless, the Meccans decided to march against Mohammed anyway. The two armies met at the well of Badr (70 Miles southwest of Madina). The army of the Quraysh was three times larger than the Muslim army, yet the Muslims won the battle by managing to take control of the water source, the well.

This victory at their first armed conflict changed many things for the new Islamic state. Now Muslims saw the possibility of winning an armed conflict against an army much larger than their own, and they even saw the possibility of initiating attacks against Mecca and its allies. So during the year after the Battle of Badr, Muslims waged smaller expeditions against some of Mohammed’s more vocal critics – not to meet a practical need for food (as had been the motivation for their earlier attempted caravan raids) but simply to silence opposition to Islamic teachings.

Two such attacks were on a man named Abu Afak and on a woman called Asma Bint Marwan. Abu Afak was an elderly blind man who wrote poetry denouncing Mohammed and his violent ways; he posed no physical threat to Mohammed, yet Mohammed, having no tolerance for criticism, had him killed. Some modern-day Islamic sources try to justify his murder by claiming that he was killed not because he wrote poetry critical of Mohammed but because he instigated war against him. There is however no evidence for this; the Arabic quotation from writing by historian Ibn Kathir used to support this claim is heavily edited to remove the fact that Abu Afak was a 120-year-old poet, and that his work did not constitute a call to war (the word used by Ibn Kathir which is translated or interpreted as “incited war” ‒ ḥarriḍ ‒ is always understood in a positive sense when used in the Qur’an meaning “encouraged,” “roused,” “inspired” or “motivated” and thus there is no reason to think that in this context it meant anything different. That is hardly a cogent way of answering an objection if you have to remove the evidence against your thesis either by mistranslation or actually removing the counter evidence. This Procrustean bed approach to evidence is very common in Islamic apologetics, where an arbitrary standard is applied to force desired outcome.

As news of the murder spread, a woman named Asma Bint Marwan wrote a poem denouncing the act and Mohammed’s followers. When Mohammed heard of this, he asked his followers “Who will rid me of Bint Marwan?” One of them happened to be a member of Asma’s tribe; he killed her during the night and reported the murder to Mohammed the next day. Mohammed praised his actions, saying that even two goats wouldn’t butt heads over her death. This, then, was Mohammed’s way; Asma Bint Marwan, like Abu Afak, was not a warrior or a fighter but a critic. Yet he had her murdered in her sleep.

Asma Bint Marwan’s murder marked a turning point for Mohammed’s leadership. While previously those from her tribe who followed Mohammed kept it a secret, they were now open about it and the tribe as a whole are reported by historian Ibn Hisham to have “seen the power of Islam” and joined their ranks (though whether through admiration or fear we cannot say).

As Mohammed continued his expedition against his opponents, he turned his attention to one of the Jewish tribes in Madinah, Banu Qaynuqa. Muslim historians don’t agree on the reason for this Muslim aggression against the Jews; some accounts say it was because one or more Jewish youths intimidated a Muslim woman, but others say the Jewish tribe challenged him not to think that he could fight them and win just because he had defeated the Quraishites (Safiurahman al-Mubaraki, The Sealed Nectar). Initially, Mohammed wanted to kill all the members of the tribe but was ultimately persuaded by one the chieftains of Madinah (Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul) to expel the whole tribe from Madinah. Mohammed confiscated all their property and belongings and divided it among his followers, taking for himself a fifth of the spoils.

Mohammed continued his smaller expeditions until March 625, when the Quraysh retaliated by marching against Mohammed with a 3000 strong army led by Abu Sufyan, Khalid ibn al-Walid, and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As (who later became Muslim after their defeat). The battle was fought on Saturday 23rd March 625 at a valley located in front of Mount Uhud north of Madina. The Meccan cavalry of 200 significantly outnumbered the Muslim cavalry by 4 to 1. This battle is generally believed to be a defeat for the Muslims, and even the Qur’an recognises it as such:

“And what struck you on the day the two armies met [at Uḥud] was by permission of Allāh that He might make evident the [true] believers. And that He might make evident those who are hypocrites. For it was said to them, ʽCome, fight in the way of Allāh or [at least] defend.’ They said, ʽIf we had known [there would be] battle, we would have followed you.’ They were nearer to disbelief that day than to faith, saying with their mouths what was not in their hearts. And Allāh is most knowing of what they conceal. Those who said about their brothers while sitting [at home], ʽIf they had obeyed us, they would not have been killed.’ Say, ʽThen prevent death from yourselves, if you should be truthful.’ ” (Qur'an 3:166-168)

During the battle Mohammed was injured and broke his teeth; his uncle, Hamzah ibn ‘Abdul-Muttalib, was killed. Despite the defeat, however, the battle provided Mohammed with the opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a military general by choosing the strategic position of Uhud. Thus was the idea of militant Islam firmly established and with it the importance of warfare to the new Islamic state. This marked the point at which Mohammed started to rely more and more on military campaigns to spread his new religion.

In the next few years Mohammed got rid of the remaining Jewish tribes in Madina by expelling the Banu Nadir, and massacring all the males of Banu Qurayza and taking women and children as slaves. Finally, in 630 (just two years before his death), he rode against Mecca, and conquered the town of his birth which had rejected him and his message.

After Mohammed's death, Muslims continued to expand by military force and within a hundred years they established an empire stretching from the south of France in the west to India in the east, and from Armenia in the north to Yemen in the south.

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